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USA-led group tries to save Olympic wrestling

USA's Rulon Gardner waves the American flag following

USA's Rulon Gardner waves the American flag following his gold medal win against Russia's three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexandre Kareline in the Greco-Roman 130-kg final wrestling match at the Summer Games in Sydney. Credit: AP, 2000

USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender knows it will take an international push to save Olympic wrestling.

To that end, the Americans have formed a star-studded group designed to help get their sport back on the Olympic program.

USA Wrestling has announced that a group led by former world champion Bill Scherr will work to fight the IOC's decision earlier this week to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympics.

Scherr's brother, former U.S. Olympic Committee head Jim Scherr, will take part along with World and Olympic champions Bruce Baumgartner, John Smith, Rulon Gardner and Dan Gable and two-time Olympians Kerry McCoy and Clarissa Chun.

USA Wrestling also plans to lean on international business leaders and public relations experts as it formulates a strategy to petition for re-inclusion.

"It's an opportunity for our sport to have a platform and talk about the characteristics of wrestling. The demographics of our sport. The broad-based participation of our sport. The history of our sport. All the things that are great about our sport," Bender said.

The newly-formed group doesn't have much time to change the IOC's mind.

The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to choose which sport or sports to propose for inclusion in 2020. The final vote will be made at the IOC general assembly in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Wrestling has now been lumped with a combined bid from baseball and softball, as well as bids from karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and the martial art of wushu.

The first major face-to-face meetings between international wrestling officials will come next week in Tehran, site of the upcoming World Cup tournament.

Bender, who leaves Monday for Iran, said he intends to meet with leaders from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Belarus.

"We must form a coalition. We must. The wrestling nations must work together on this," Bender said. "It's critical that we are all on the same page. And directing the energies of the wrestling communities and their countries to one common cause, and that's obviously to convince the International Olympic Committee that wrestling belongs on the program."

Bender said the Russian, Iranian and Japanese wrestling federations have also begun their own plans to fight the IOC's decision, adding that he spoke about strategy with Russian and Japanese officials over the phone on Thursday.

Bender said an international summit could also be on the table, though more solid plans will likely be formed in the coming weeks.

Though Bender knows that sports that are removed from the Olympic program don't usually earn immediate re-inclusion, he sees wrestling as a unique case.

"This might be taken the wrong way. But historically, sports like wrestling haven't been challenged like this," Bender said. "The reality of it is that our sport belongs in the program. Our sport has one of the biggest histories and traditions within the Olympic movement."

New York Sports