Selling out the soul of the Olympic Games

Eric Pearson Chairman, American Sports Council
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When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its recommendation to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games, it only took minutes for the news to spark global outrage. It’s just about impossible to get political enemies like the U.S., Russia and Iran to agree on anything, but now the three historic rivals and wrestling powers find themselves united in their disgust with the IOC’s decision.

While the roster of Olympic sports has always been in flux, the exclusion of wrestling represents one compromise too many, a compromise that threatens to undermine the very foundation of the popularity of the Games and tarnish the legendary Olympic brand.

It’s the Olympics, not the X Games: The cancellation of wrestling was shocking due to the deep historic connection between the sport and the origin of the Games in ancient Greece. When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, organizers made sure to include competitions like wrestling alongside modern sports like cycling, shooting and tennis.

It was this balance between the ancient and modern that helped attract financial support for the Games, while still maintaining a vital thread to the past. In recent years, the IOC has undermined that balance by adding so many new sports that wrestling was crowded out in order to help control costs. But what the IOC seems to have forgotten is that it’s the inclusion of classic events like wrestling that convey the special aura of the Olympic Games. Without wrestling, the Olympics aren’t the Olympics. One can’t help but wonder what else might be on the chopping block to make room for the next extreme sport. Perhaps javelin, discus or even the marathon is on the endangered list.

The enduring value of participation: When the modern Games were founded, the concept of the professional athlete was largely derided. For decades, professionals were excluded from the Games, though those restrictions were gradually lifted beginning in the 1970s.

While no one wants to return to those days, the Olympics still have a vital role to play in shining a once-in-a-lifetime spotlight on athletes who don’t earn millions of dollars. The stories of Olympian sacrifice and the determination of competitors are what we remember from the games — athletes overcome with emotion in victory and defeat striving for their life-long dreams of Olympic glory. If the personal interest stories that dominate Olympic television coverage are any indication, television viewers continue to tune in and celebrate those athletes for just that reason.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, valued participation above all. He said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.” De Coubertin understood that in sports not only the winners win. There is an underlying social and educational benefit that athletes can take away from training and competing that is entirely different from the experience of the spectator. This is why sports like wrestling that don’t enjoy huge television contracts still have value to society. De Coubertin’s Olympic creed is still relevant today and should not be thrown aside in the chase for television ratings and corporate sponsorship.

Corruption and insularity at the IOC: The elimination of wrestling has also reinforced the notion that the IOC is hopelessly disconnected and corrupt. The 15-member executive board that decided to eliminate wrestling did so by a secret ballot and is dominated by members from continental Europe. Neither the U.S. nor Russia, the two nations where wrestling is the most popular, has a representative on the executive board.

Here in the U.S., the IOC is still remembered for the bribery scandal that rocked the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. According to investigators, members of the IOC accepted more than $1 million in cash, gifts, trips and scholarships from the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee. Ten members of the IOC were forced to resign and another 10 were censured.

While the IOC might own the international trademark to the Olympic rings, its members are proving to be poor stewards of what those rings represent. In the world of business, they call it branding. In both international and American football, they call it “protecting the shield.” If the IOC truly wants to remove the tarnish from the rings, reinstating wrestling as an Olympic sport would be a good place to start.

Eric Pearson, a former Princeton University wrestler and coach, is the chairman of the American Sports Council.