One step forward, two steps back

The decision to drop wrestling from the Olympics will backfire later this year, when it leapfrogs other sports and is reinstated

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 3:42am

A decision made in faraway Lausanne, Switzerland, by 15 members of the International Olympic Committee's executive board earlier this month could well have a serious impact on Hong Kong. The board decided to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics but the outcry that followed means this ancient sport could have a second lease of life when the IOC decides later this year on the final programme for those Games. Seven other sports are vying to join the roster but they might as well wave the white flag now - wrestling looks a hammerlock to win readmission at the IOC Congress in Buenos Aires in September.

One of those other sports is squash, seen as a frontrunner to join the Olympic family before wrestling's unexpected expulsion. Squash is a mainstream sport in this town. It has been backed by the Sports Institute for years and our athletes have always done us proud at the Asian level.

Remember Rebecca Chiu Wing-yin defeating Nicol David to win the gold medal at the 2002 Busan Asian Games? Or even on the international stage, where in 2011 Annie Au Wing-chi was No 6 in the world, the highest ranking achieved by a local player. Every year, the city also puts on a grand show when the world's top men and women players turn up for the Hong Kong Open. Heather Deayton, a longtime Hong Kong Squash official who is now the vice-president of the World Squash Federation, was downbeat as she reassessed her sport's chances of joining the Olympics after the wrestling bombshell, saying it had sent "widespread shockwaves" throughout the community.

While all the focus has been on wrestling being "dropped", what many have overlooked is the sport hasn't been banished entirely. It has only been put on notice. Wrestling, which goes back 2,500 years - it was a core sport of the ancient Olympics - has a good chance of retaining its status in September.

By picking wrestling, the IOC executive board has immediately killed the chances of all the other sports which are fighting for the one berth available for 2020. The money had been on modern pentathlon getting the boot, but it survived because it has a powerful backer in the form of the Juan Antonio Samaranch Jnr. So against all expectations, wrestling was culled.

But will the IOC executive board be eating humble pie come September? Considering the backlash and widespread condemnation the decision to remove wrestling has received, it is doubtful the verdict will stand and the odds strongly favour wrestling being reinstated.

What a massive blow that will be, not only for squash but also baseball and softball, which are making a joint bid, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. If say, modern pentathlon (it involves five disciplines: pistol shooting, fencing, 200 metres freestyle swimming, show jumping and a 3km cross country run) had been demoted, they would all have had a stronger chance.

Like almost everyone, Deayton was caught "totally by surprise" by the IOC decision. "I can understand wrestling being in the Olympics. It is after all a pillar of the Games," she said. It is this commonly held view which is likely to plaster egg all over the face of the IOC executive board. Just imagine how it will feel when the rank and file overturn a decision made by their masters.

Instead of having a new sport in 2020, what will happen is that wrestling will be back. Something is not right inside the IOC. In 2005, the IOC Congress was caught out when it voted on which two new sports would join the London Games in 2012. Karate and squash, which passed the first test, failed to get in as they couldn't muster enough support in the final round of voting thanks to a complicated process.

This resulted in the IOC saying that a simple majority was enough in 2009 to decide the two new sports for 2016, paving the way for golf and rugby sevens. But leaving the decision to drop a sport every four years with the executive board has backfired. It should be the other way around, with the 115 or so members of the IOC Congress deciding first and their verdict being ratified by the board.

If somehow squash is voted in for 2020, it will be a huge fillip for Hong Kong sport. The city is almost guaranteed to be represented in one more sport at the Olympics, which will be a massive achievement in itself.

But now we are in a bind.