UNIVERSITY PARK — Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson descended the steps in Rec Hall, expecting to lead his Penn State wrestling team in an early Tuesday morning weightlifting session.
Instead, Sanderson spent the morning hours working the phones, trying to help organize efforts to save his sport from the chopping block after the International Olympic Committee voted to cut wrestling from the Olympic Games starting in 2020.
After IOC board members reviewed reports on each Olympic sport, the IOC identified wrestling — one of the sports contested in the first Games held in Olympia — as an expendable program when compared to its other 25 sports.
“I don’t think I’ve really accepted it yet,” Sanderson, who won a gold medal in the 2004 Games held in Athens, said. “I think it’s more like we’re in Round 1. We’ve still got two rounds to go here.”
The IOC could finalize the decision when it convenes again in Buenos Aires in September. For now, Sanderson is mounting a counter-offensive in order to combat the IOC’s recommendation. He spoke with fellow coaches and members of the USA Wrestling community on Tuesday before meeting with local reporters.
When Sanderson stepped inside Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, he was decked out in an old pair of USA Wrestling shorts.
“I will absolutely do everything in my power to make sure that the decision doesn’t go through and that it is not finalized,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson spent time on the phone with Iowa head coach Tom Brands and the two normal rivals bounced ideas off one another as to how to establish an early plan of attack to thwart the IOC’s plan. After his team’s practice, Sanderson was preparing to check his email where he would hopefully receive some guidance from the heads of USA Wrestling, based in Colorado Springs, as to how to proceed.
USA Wrestling released a statement in which the organization expressed its “surprise and disappointment” at the IOC’s recommendation that was made public after secret ballots were cast. The number of votes cast for wrestling’s exclusion from the Games was not made public.
“USA Wrestling pledges to be a leader in the international effort to insure that wrestling remains on the Olympic program,” the release said. “As we continue our leadership in expanding wrestling within our nation, we also will place our full resources and energy behind supporting wrestling on the international level.”
Meanwhile, reactions ranging from shock to outrage began to filter through social media sites from some of the U.S.’s most successful grapplers.
Nittany Lion Wrestling Club resident athlete Jake Varner took to Twitter to encourage wrestling fans to “keep on fighting for this great sport.” Varner, who won the gold medal in 96-kilogram freestyle competition at last summer’s London Games, wasn’t alone.
Jake Herbert, who also wrestled for Team USA in London and Jordan Burroughs, who brought home a gold for Team USA this past summer at 74 kilograms, echoed Varner’s sentiments with similar tweets. A Facebook page titled, “Save Olympic Wrestling,” was started Tuesday morning. By midday, it had 5,000 members and that number had reached nearly 12,000 members before 8 p.m.
“I kept going through the report and I was looking to see if it was a farce, or if it was one style or the other but to see it was both grecco and freestyle was just absolutely shocking,” Rulon Gardner, who won gold and bronze medals in the 2000 and 2004 Games, respectively, told the Centre Daily Times.
Inside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, Penn State wrestlers were shocked, too.
“I definitely don’t agree with it whatsoever. Wrestling is the greatest sport, the oldest sport in this world,” senior Quentin Wright said. “It’s what you do when two people get into a fight. They have a disagreement, sometimes they’ve got to work it out.”
And members of the wrestling committee are committed to doing just that. When the IOC Board meets to finalize what it called an effort to “streamline” the Games by cutting sports, wrestling will be battling against baseball and softball and six other sports to be reintroduced.
All the way across the country, Olympian Ken Chertow, who runs a youth wrestling training center near Boalsburg, was preparing to run a clinic in Oregon when he heard the news. Chertow, who was a member of the 1988 U.S. team that competed in the Games in Seoul, South Korea, was on the phone with USA Wrestling representatives as soon as the story developed.
“There is no way the wrestling community will accept that, and I’m sure we will fight hard to do what is needed to be done to correct the wrong decision,” Chertow said. “I plan to take a leadership role in battling to communicate with the IOC and take a leadership role with USA Wrestling to make sure wrestling is retained in 2020.”
Sanderson’s early approach has been to conduct as many interviews with reporters as possible. He hopes that the intensely negative worldwide reaction to the IOC’s decision as covered by the media will convince IOC board members to change their minds in time for the September vote.
Iran and Russia, two of the strongest countries in international wrestling circuits, also panned the IOC’s vote while FILA, the sport’s international governing body derided the decision and vowed to do everything in its power to have the sport included in the 2020 Olympic program.
“FILA was greatly astonished by today’s recommendation of the IOC Executive Board not to maintain wrestling among the 25 core sports for the 2020 Olympic Games,” FILA said in a statement.
After reviewing the credentials of most of the members who make up the IOC board, Sanderson questioned the board’s collective knowledge of wrestling and its ability to fairly assess which sport should be cut.
Not one executive that sits on the IOC board has a tie to wrestling.
Meanwhile, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. currently serves on the board and is the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union, a position he has held since 1996. Modern pentathlon has been up for elimination over the last few Olympic cycles, but was kept over wrestling despite not having as broad of an appeal worldwide.
Modern pentathlon athletes from 26 countries competed in last summer’s games compared to wrestlers from 71 different nations.
“It’s easy to find a way to contact them through the Internet or send letters of positive support (for wrestling),” Sanderson said. “The board members that I’ve done a little research on, there’s not really a history of wrestling. So you can’t just attack them. You’ve got to really present a good cause for why wrestling should be in the Olympics and make sure they know that there’s enough support and enough following that that’s not the way they want to go.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.