Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) — It has been scarcely a week since the International Olympic Committee announced its intention to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, and the campaign to “Save Wrestling” is in full swing.
Donald Rumsfeld and John Irving, both former wrestlers, took to the op-ed pages to celebrate the sport’s Olympic legacy (which dates to the first Olympic Games in 776 BC) and its current popularity. Raphael Martinetti, the ineffectual president of wrestling’s international federation, FILA, has been ousted. Millions of dollars have been raised — Wall Street has a lot of former high school and college wrestlers — to underwrite a push for readmission before the IOC makes its final decision in May.
“It’s not in a wrestler’s DNA to hop on a plane and kiss a lot of ass,” says Michael E. Novogratz, a hedge-fund manager in New York who wrestled at Princeton University. “But that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing over the next three months.”
Of course, wrestling’s advocates can be expected to do everything in their power to keep their sport in the Olympics. There’s a larger issue here, though: the body they’re appealing to. The IOC isn’t exactly an honest broker, let alone a global federation committed to “excellence, friendship and respect.” It’s a self-recruited club of tin-pot emperors presiding over the greatest monopoly in all of sports.
Historians may disagree about the origins of the Olympics, but there’s no dispute over the architect of the modern games: the late Juan Antonio Samaranch — he preferred “Your Excellency,” in deference to his noble heritage — who ran the IOC from 1980 to 2001.
It was Samaranch, a fascist youth organizer in General Francisco Franco’s Spain, who unlocked the true potential of the games, at least as far as the IOC’s balance sheet was concerned. Samaranch understood and embraced the commercial power of the Olympic brand. He initiated the mega-bidding wars that now routinely take place between aspiring host cities, while ensuring that the “winners” (the jury is still very much out on whether these events ultimately help or harm local economies) absorbed any financial risk associated with putting on the games. For its part, the IOC filled its Swiss bank accounts with billions of untaxed dollars from sponsorship fees and TV rights.
It was also Samaranch who presided over the increasing corruption of the Olympics, essentially making them a free- enterprise zone for committee members willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder. After years of rumors and denials, the sordid nature of the Olympics’ decision-making process finally became public in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Games, which turned out to have been delivered to Salt Lake City via a series of bribes to IOC members.
The Salt Lake City scandals led to what the IOC likes to call “major reforms.” What sorts of changes have those reforms wrought? Last year, Mexican media mogul Mario Vazquez Rana resigned in protest from the IOC’s executive board, accusing one of his colleagues, the former Kuwaiti oil minister, of buying votes.