WASHINGTON After waking up to the stunning news that International Olympic Committee leaders had voted to drop wrestling from the Summer Games beginning in 2020, the U.S. wrestling community responded as young grapplers are taught: It girded for a challenge.
In this case, the playing field isn't a mat, but the tricky political terrain of the IOC, whose business is largely conducted by secret ballot behind closed doors.
That's how it came to pass Tuesday morning in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the IOC's 15-member executive board voted to drop one of the oldest Olympic sports from its list of 25 "core sports" while retaining newer additions such as modern pentathlon and taekwondo.
Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling will be contested at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, voiced surprise and disappointment over a decision that caught wrestling's national and international governing bodies off guard. He vowed USA Wrestling would take the lead in an international effort to persuade IOC officials to reverse course, stressing wrestling's central role in the original Greek Olympic Games and the sport's present-day global reach.
American Rulon Gardner, who upset three-time Russian Olympic Greco-Roman champion Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Sydney Games in an epic gold-medal bout known as the "Miracle on the Mat," was saddened by the decision to drop what he called "a beloved sport."
"It's the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on," Gardner told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Logan, Utah.
In the Washington area, veteran college coach John McHugh, 77, who nurtured wrestling programs at Catholic University and American University before coaching the University of Maryland for 25 years, had trouble digesting the news.
"Some of the other sports they have, like fencing how many people in our country fence? Very few," McHugh said.
Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, was equally shocked when the first email appeared on his phone during his Tuesday morning Rotary Club meeting.
"What's so stunning is how a decision of this magnitude could be made without any forewarning," Moyer said. "You'd like to think the Olympics would be more inclusive than exclusive. But this decision absolutely impacts wrestling at every level ."
By Tuesday afternoon, Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy, who competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and served as a U.S. wrestling coach at the 2008 Beijing Games, was well on his way to galvanizing support for the sport's future in the Olympics.
"The nature of our sport is to be in battle," said McCoy. "When somebody says a wrestler can't do something, he's going to prove them wrong and find a way to go over, around or through that challenge."
Needing to cull its current list of 26 Summer Olympic sports to 25, the IOC executive board considered a handful of sports for elimination in a private meeting.
Wrestling joins seven other sports that will campaign for inclusion (or reinstatement) in 2020. The IOC board will choose one among them at a May meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The others vying for that single spot: karate, squash, roller sport, sport climbing, wakeboarding, wushu and a combined bid from baseball and softball, which were voted out of the Olympics in 2005 in a move that was widely interpreted as a rejection of American dominance.