Wrestling, Yes. Squash, No. The Bizarre Way that Sports Make it to the Olympics

Jacob Stephen Varner of the United States in action against George Gogshelidze of Georgia during the Men's Freestyle Wrestling 96kg semi final match on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on August 12, 2012 in London, England.
Jacob Stephen Varner of the United States in action against George Gogshelidze of Georgia during the Men's Freestyle Wrestling 96kg semi final match on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on August 12, 2012 in London, England. Ryan Pierse

Leading up to Rio, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that it’s adding five sports (karate, skateboarding, sports climbing, surfing, and baseball/softball) to the 2020 Games in Tokyo. According to the IOC’s press release, the additions will not come at the expense of cutting existing sports: “These [five] sports are considered on top of the athlete and event quota recommendations for Olympic sports outlined in Olympic Agenda 2020, and will not take places away from athletes in existing Olympic sports.”

But those close to the industry remain suspect. “The reality is, no one really knows,” says Andrew Jennings, a British investigative reporter who has been covering corruption in the Olympics for nearly four decades. “There is no process, there is no information, it’s all a big, bloody secret.”

Jennings points to the fate of wrestling, which was cut following the 2012 London Games, and then reinstated six months later after a massive backlash. “Wrestling was part of the ancient Olympic Games in 708 B.C. as well as the modern version of the games, which started in 1896,” he says. “It’s considered a core Olympic sport, which means its inclusion isn’t up for debate. Then it was cut. It was quite astonishing, really — and the president of the International Wrestling Federation [Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland,] resigned over it.”

Don Porter, who was president of the international federation of softball when the sport was cut from the Olympics, recalls a similarly opaque arbitration. The IOC hadn’t removed any sports from the games since Polo in 1936, "but then in, like, 2002, the then-president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge from Belgium, started talking about the need for an overall review of all the Olympic sports.”

Rogge called for a secret ballot at the 2005 IOC session in Mexico City where members voted in or out, on all 28 Summer Olympic Sports. Two did not win the majority: softball and baseball. Some suspected it was due to a European bias within the IOC — softball and baseball are mostly played in the U.S., Canada, and Asia.

Porter and his colleagues lobbied heavily for the re-instatement of softball, and it was up for reconsideration at the 2006 IOC session in Turin, Italy, where it again lost, by three votes. Softball lost again in 2009, while golf and rugby were added, and again in 2013, the same year wrestling was reinstated.

Softball’s luck changed with the current IOC president, Thomas Bach, who has made a number of changes since being appointed in 2013. “He created a new program where the host country can recommend sports be added,” says Porter. “It’s too late for Rio, but since the 2020 Olympics will be in Tokyo, where baseball and softball are hugely popular, we’ll get another vote.”

On August 3, softball and baseball, along with the four other sports under consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Games, were approved by the IOC. “It took us 29 years 6 months and 13 days to get into the Olympic program in the first place,” says Porter. “And after we were dropped, it’s taken another eight years to get re-instated. But I don’t want to say anything too negative, because I’m happy — there are a lot of young athletes who play softball whose dreams have been restored.”

The IOC’s Media Relations Team declined Men's Journal's request for an interview, and instead referred us to Section III of the 110-page Olympic Charter for more information on how sports are added and removed. It reads:

“The programme is established following a review by the IOC of the programme of the previous corresponding edition of the Olympic Games. Only sports which comply with the Olympic Charter and the World Anti-Doping Code are eligible to be in the programme.”

It appears the act of getting a sport into the Olympics, or in Porter’s case, back into the Olympics, is just as opaque as having one get kicked out. Joe De Sena, Spartan Race founder, has been working to add obstacle racing — which he claims is the fastest growing sport in America — to the Summer Olympics for three years and says it’s probably going to take another 40 years of effort. “The reality is, the IOC is a very old organization, and the older an organization gets, the more red tape and bureaucracy you have to go through,” says De Sena. “It’s going to be a long, long road.”