Being booted out of the Olympic programme in February was probably the best thing that could happen to wrestling. In just six months, the sport has reinvented itself, brought in women leaders to champion diversity and embraced ways to modernise the sport. It is now the favourite to reclaim the sole programme spot up for grabs at the 2020 Olympics today, at the expense of squash and baseball/softball.
"It was a journey over troubled waters but we now see the port, the harbour," International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (Fila) president Nenad Lalovic said at a press conference on Friday.
The charismatic Serb, who has been one of Fila's top administrators since 2006, has been credited for overseeing a dramatic makeover of the sport. Made interim president in February, after the shock decision by the International Olympic Committee to drop wrestling from the Olympic programme and the subsequent resignation of former president Raphael Martinetti, Lalovic led the sport in a fight for their lives.
One of his first moves was to hand members of the world wrestling fraternity an envelope and said the person in the envelope would be tasked with putting in place the changes their sport needed to stay as an Olympic sport.
Each envelope contained a mirror - exhorting every member to lead the way in changing a sport that was reluctant to modernise. Today, wrestling boasts changes to make it more television- and spectator-friendly, rewards aggressive rather than defensive wrestling strategy, and celebrates diversity - at least one of the four Fila vice-presidents must now be a woman, while two more women events were added.
Like wrestling, baseball and softball's pitch is to grapple with the issues within the sport. In their case - especially so with baseball in the Major League Baseball doping scandals - the problem has been a lax approach with doping.
World Baseball Softball Confederation co-president Don Porter said doping is a problem not exclusive to baseball, and paid tribute to MLB for toughening its stance against drugs. Baseball and softball were on the Olympic programme from 1992 to 2008 but were kicked out of last year's London Olympics after they were voted out during the 2005 IOC Session in Singapore.
One of the problems then, which remains today, is the MLB's reluctance to alter its schedule to allow its best players to play at the Olympics. That issue is not a problem for squash. Indeed, women's world No.1 Nicol David of Malaysia has no doubts that winning an Olympic gold will be the pinnacle of any squash player's career. The record seven-time world champion, who last week became the most successful women's player in the sport by occupying the world No.1 slot a record 86 months, was part of the World Squash Federation team who presented their case to the IOC in May.
Unable to be in Buenos Aires because she is playing in the Malaysia Open this week, the 30-year-old reiterated how squash will offer a unique, and truly new experience. With its innovative glass courts, the game can be played against the backdrop of some of the world's most exotic places, as evidenced by events at the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and New York's Grand Central Station.
The game's marketability is what David hopes will persuade IOC members to vote for squash. She added: "We've made huge changes to the game and embraced technology in our coverage of matches. Squash deserves to be on the world's biggest sporting stage."
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