In this 2012 file photo, Keitani Graham of Micronesia, left, competes against Charles Edward Betts of the United States during the 84-kg Greco-Roman wrestling competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. IOC leaders have dropped wrestling from the program for the 2020 Olympics. In a surprise decision Tuesday morning, the IOC executive board decided to retain modern pentathlon and remove wrestling instead.
LAUSANNE, Switzerland — For wrestling, this may have been the ultimate body slam: getting tossed out of the Olympic rings.
The vote Tuesday by the IOC's executive board stunned the world's wrestlers, who see their sport as popular in many countries and steeped in history as old as the Olympics themselves.
While wrestling will be included at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it was cut from the games in 2020, which have yet to be awarded to a host city.
2004 Olympic Greco-Roman champion Khasan Baroev of Russia called the decision "mind-boggling."
“I just can't believe it. And what sport will then be added to the Olympic program? What sport is worthy of replacing ours?” Baroev told the ITAR-Tass news agency. "Wrestling is popular in many countries — just see how the medals were distributed at the last Olympics."
American Rulan Gardner, who upset three-time Russian Olympic champion Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Games in an epic gold-medal bout known as the "Miracle on the Mat," was saddened by the decision to drop what he called "a beloved sport."
“It's the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on,” Gardner told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Logan, Utah.
The executive board of the International Olympic Committee reviewed the 26 sports on its summer program in order to remove one of them so it could add one later this year. It decided to cut wrestling and keep modern pentathlon — a sport that combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting — and was considered to be the most likely to be dropped.
The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program commission report that analyzed 39 criteria, including TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.
“This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling; it is what's right with the 25 core sports.”
According to IOC documents obtained by the AP, wrestling ranked "low" in several of the technical criteria, including popularity with the public at the London Games — just below 5 on a scale of 10. Wrestling sold 113,851 tickets in London out of 116,854 available.
Wrestling also ranked "low" in global TV audience with a maximum of 58.5 million viewers and an average of 23 million, the documents show. Internet hits and press coverage were also ranked as low.
The IOC also noted that FILA — the international wrestling federation — has no athletes on its decision-making bodies, no women's commission, no ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.
Modern pentathlon also ranked low in general popularity in London, with 5.2 out of 10. The sport also ranked low in all TV categories, with maximum viewership of 33.5 million and an average of 12.5 million.
FILA has 177 member nations, compared to 108 for modern pentathlon.
Modern pentathlon, which has been on the Olympic program since the 1912 Stockholm Games, was created by French baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement.
It also benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president who is a UIPM vice president and member of the IOC board.
"We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program commission report but strong in others," Samaranch told the AP. "We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the positives."
Klaus Schormann, president of governing body UIPM, lobbied hard to protect his sport's Olympic status and it paid off in the end.
"We have promised things and we have delivered," he said after Tuesday's decision. "That gives me a great feeling. It also gives me new energy to develop our sport further and never give up."
The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for 2020, but it is extremely unlikely that it would be voted back in so soon after being removed by the executive board.
The other sports vying for a single opening in 2020 are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, a martial art.
"Today's decision is not final," Adams said. "The session is sovereign and the session will make the final decision."
Wrestling featured 344 athletes competing in 11 medal events in freestyle and seven in Greco-Roman at last year's London Olympics, with Russia dominating the podium but Iran and Azerbaijan making strong showings. Women's wrestling was added to the Olympics at the 2004 Athens Games.
Tuesday's decision came via secret ballot over four rounds, with 14 members voting each time on which sport should not be included in the core group. IOC President Jacques Rogge did not vote.
Three sports were left in the final round: wrestling, field hockey and modern pentathlon. Eight members voted against wrestling and three each against the other two sports. Taekwondo and canoe kayaking survived the previous rounds.
“I was shocked," said IOC board member Rene Fasel of Switzerland.
“It was an extremely difficult decision to take," added IOC Vice President Thomas Bach of Germany. "The motivation of every member is never based on a single reason. There are always several reasons. It was a secret vote. There will always be criticism, but I think the great majority will understand that we took a decision based on facts and for the modernization of the Olympic Games."
Wrestling was featured in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.