With the Olympics six months away, the president of wrestling's international governing body says the sport is on a solid foundation and positioned for growth.
Nenad Lalovic took over leadership of United World Wrestling seven years ago, shortly after the sport was targeted for elimination from the Olympics in 2020. Lalovic led the campaign to save wrestling and since then has overseen a modernization of the ancient sport.
Opportunities for women on and off the mat have increased. Technology has been embraced. Stars are being promoted like never before.
Lalovic, speaking from Geneva, told The Associated Press so much has happened since he took over in 2013 that he couldn't pick one accomplishment that gives him the most pride.
“Altogether we have had a huge impact on the development of our sport," he said. “This is why we are really confident we are a very good part of the Olympic movement.”
The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero featured engaged, large crowds and captivating performances by, among others, Abdulrashid “Russian Tank” Sadulaev, Americans Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis, and Cuban Greco Roman star Mijaín López Núñez.
Lalovic said the sport's turning point was the 2015 world championships in Las Vegas. The presentation was polished, fitting of a major international competition, with big video boards and other amenities for the fans and spacious warm-up areas, nutritious food, reliable transportation and top medical care for the wrestlers. That was in stark contrast to the previous year's championships in Uzbekistan.
Prior to Lalovic's arrival in 2013, the International Olympic Committee proposed kicking wrestling out of the games, alleging mismanagement and complacency by the sport's governors. There also was a lack of diversity in leadership at the international and national levels, and rules and scoring were hard to understand for casual fans and needed to be revised to encourage faster action.
Women's wrestling, which entered the Olympics in 2004, will get the big stage in Tokyo. Japan is the dominant nation in women's wrestling, having taken 11 of 18 gold medals in the last three Olympics. A women's gold medal match will be featured to end six of the seven days of the tournament, assuring capacity crowds at the Makuhari Messe venue.
United World Wrestling and national federations have hosted forums to encourage women to become referees and coaches and to serve in leadership positions.
“When you speak about women’s wrestling, it is not less spectacular than men’s wrestling,” Lalovic said. “We have more countries coming in with women’s wrestling like China, Mongolia, India. In the beginning, the most successful were Scandinavian countries. Since then, Japan has invested a lot in that style and the result is visible, of course.”
A new computerized draw process will be used in Tokyo to set up the brackets. Lalovic said he has been pleased with a relatively new system for selecting referees just minutes before matches. The system takes into account the nationalities of referees and athletes and other factors, such as religion, in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
“We really try to provide the best conditions for our athletes in order to fight and have impartial decisions by the referees," Lalovic said. "There are very small details that can decide the outcome, and this is why we installed that.”
The sport's exposure has increased because of video streaming and increased television coverage. In June, United World Wrestling and India-based Sporty Solutionz signed a six-year agreement to promote wrestling on the Indian subcontinent on broadcast and digital mediums.
UWW Ranking Series events, where wrestlers earn points that affect their world rankings, have been well-attended throughout the world and have helped top wrestlers build their brands, Lalovic said.
Lalovic said he is monitoring the fallout of the Russian doping scandal. The World Anti-Doping Agency last month banned Russia's name and flag from the Olympics and other major events for four years as punishment for altering data on athlete blood tests. Russia is planning to appeal the sanctions at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in time for the Olympics.
Lalovic said UWW, like other sport federations, has put an emphasis on educating wrestlers about the risks of doping. He said doping cases involving wrestlers have declined since 2013. The frustration with doping, he said, is that there often are bad influences surrounding wrestlers.
“We have the problem of the entourages you can’t underestimate while we are fighting against doping,” Lalovic said. "For the fight to be successful, we insist on education of the athletes first.”