Novogratz Says He Will Fight to Save Wrestling From Olympics Cut

Michael Novogratz says he’ll use lessons gleaned from a lifetime in wrestling as he tries to overturn the sport’s elimination from the 2020 Olympics.

“There’s a great adage, don’t pick a fight with a wrestler, because you’re going to get your ass kicked,” Novogratz, the Fortress Investment Group LLC principal and director, said hours after learning his sport had been recommended to be dropped from the Olympic program. “All of a sudden, someone’s decided to pick a fight with 5 million wrestlers. People will be surprised by the reaction.”

The International Olympic Committee announced yesterday at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, that its executive board had voted to cut wrestling from a core group of 25 sports for the 2020 Games.

That means wrestling, which has been in the modern Olympics since they started in 1896 and was part of the ancient games in Olympia, Greece, as early as 708 B.C., now must vie with seven other sports for one spot in the 2020 program.

The 15-member board will meet again May 29-31 to decide which of the eight to endorse for inclusion, giving wrestling 2 1/2 months to rally support. A final vote will take place in September at a full meeting of IOC members.

The preliminary vote stunned many people involved with wrestling and the Olympic movement, including Novogratz, co-chairman of the recently created U.S. Wrestling Foundation that oversees the sport’s development. Novogratz, 48, said in a telephone interview that his initial response ranged from despair to anger before deciding “we’re going to figure out how to fight this.”

‘Stunningly Damaging’

“It’s an existential threat” to the development of the sport, said Novogratz, the former Princeton University wrestler who is chairman of Beat the Streets, the inner-city wrestling program. “It would be stunningly damaging.”

Wrestling will compete with baseball and softball, which are seeking inclusion under a single sports banner; karate; roller sports; squash; sport climbing; wakeboard, and the Chinese martial art of wushu.

“Wushu?” Novogratz said. “I’ve never even heard of wushu. There seems to be a disconnect.”

At the London Games last year, 29 nations won medals in wrestling, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.

“That, to me, is very powerful,” Wallechinsky, who was a commentator in London for NBC Radio, said in a telephone interview. “Not only does it allow countries that don’t normally win medals to win medals, but some of our best U.S. stories have come out of wrestling.”

Wrestling Disciplines

The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, known as FILA, oversees the sport, which consists of two disciplines: Greco-Roman, in which athletes use their upper bodies and arms only; and freestyle, in which athletes can use any part of their bodies.

FILA said in a statement that it was “greatly astonished” by the recommendation and that it would work to convince the IOC to keep the sport.

FILA “just did not do a great job of selling the merits of the sport,” said Novogratz, pointing out the popularity of wrestling in countries such as Iran, Cuba, Azerbaijan and Georgia; its practicality from a cost aspect, and its historical importance to the Olympic movement.

“I am fairly certain that wrestling will be in the Olympics in 2020,” Novogratz said. “We’re going to ensure that with an aggressive lobbying effort, with money, with letters.”

Without much time to mount a campaign, wrestling faces a difficult challenge, said Harvey Schiller, the former president of the International Baseball Federation.

After baseball and softball were voted out in 2005, the sports tried to get considered again at a second meeting, as wrestling will try to do.

Second Chances

“They got less votes the second time than they did the first time,” Schiller, chief executive officer of GlobalOptions Group Inc., said in a telephone interview. “Since it’s the same board that’s meeting in May that just eliminated wrestling, why would they bring it back?”

The September meeting also will determine which city out of Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo will host the 2020 Games.

Schiller, too, said he was surprised by the IOC vote, calling it “a step away from the U.S.”

“You’ve got baseball, softball and now you’ve got wrestling,” he said, also mentioning failed bids by New York and Chicago to host the Olympics. “You’ve got a lot of things in the same basket.”

The vote drew the opposite reaction among people Wallechinsky spoke with from Iran and India, who complained of a Western bias in the removal of a sport their countries also embrace.

“They felt, ‘Here’s the Westerners adding tennis, golf, rugby, sports that we don’t play in Asia, and eliminating one of our few chances to get medals,’” Wallechinsky said.

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