Even as they were distracted by an Iranian team’s hasty departure from the United States, wrestling’s leaders got some good news a day before the international wrestling federation (FILA) has an extraordinary congress that needs to embody all senses of the word “extraordinary.”
The news: Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland told the federation’s board Friday he has dropped his bid to regain the presidency.
Many blame Martinetti’s intransigence and total domination of federation affairs for the International Olympic Committee executive board’s extraordinary February recommendation that wrestling be dropped from the Olympic program after the 2016 Summer Games.
He was forced to resign after that stunning blow to the sport but continued trying to exert his power, even suing to prevent the Saturday congress in Moscow that will likely relegate the Martinetti era as head of FILA to the trash heap.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected the suit, but Martinetti had told federation officials of his intention to run for the office he had held since 2002. Had he somehow won, there would have been no chance for wrestling to show it has taken the IOC’s advice on a variety of issues and that it deserves to keep its Olympic spot.
“As chair of the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling, I am pleased to see that Mr. Martinetti has decided not to seek a return to the presidency of FILA,” said Chicago banker Bill Scherr, a 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, in an email.
“It is in the best interest of our sport for him to let new leadership work to bring a fresh perspective and presentation of the sport to the IOC.”
The IOC executive board will decide May 29 which sport or sports – including wrestling - should have a shot at the available spot on the program created by the recommended elimination of wrestling. The entire IOC membership will vote on the issue at a September meeting in Buenos Aires.
The current feeling is the executive board is likely to give the membership a choice among three sports – wrestling, squash and karate. With that feeling comes the knowledge that it is nearly impossible to penetrate the IOC’s opaque decision-making process and know all the factors (and factions) that will be in play.
With Martinetti gone, FILA can move forward with internal reform that will include making interim president Nenad Lalovic of Serbia the permanent leader and making changes in the sport’s format that will make its scoring and results more understandable to audiences.
That will include dumping most of the rules Martinetti forced through, which combined to make the sport boring and incomprehensible.
“Wrestling was controlled by one individual,” Scherr said in a conversation this week. “All the rules changes were very heavy-handed, and it ended up being a complete screw-up.
“At the London Games, it had reached the point where even I couldn’t follow the matches, and a lot of other former international wrestlers had the same problem.”
The congress is prepared to dump the best-of-three-rounds format for cumulative score in a match that now would be either two three-minute rounds or a single round, perhaps five minutes long.
The unbelievably arcane “ball grab” to decide starting positions at the end of scoreless rounds will be gone, reducing the opportunity for chance (or a fix) to determine the winner. Brackets in major tournaments will be seeded to prevent all the top athletes from being in the same part of the draw.
“These are changes that will show the IOC that wrestling is on the right path,” Scherr said.
The Iranian affair actually seems irrelevant in that context, even if its team had come to the United States as part of the global effort to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
After beating the U.S. team Wednesday at New York’s Grand Central Terminal, the Iranian wrestlers were supposed to be in Los Angeles for a Sunday rematch. But they left for home Thursday night because of what an Iranian web site, Khabar Online, said Friday were concerns over their safety in Los Angeles, which has a large population of Iranians who left around the time of the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“There is no truth to any statement that security was going to be an issue,” Scherr said. “The local organizers were well prepared.”
Iran is one of the countries most deeply offended by the IOC’s decision to eliminate wrestling. But, like the IOC, its internal machinations are not easily understood.