InterMat Reads: Saving Wrestling

Mark Palmer

10/30/2013
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

February 12, 2013: The day the International Olympic Committee's Executive Board voted to eliminate wrestling from the Olympics after the 2016 Games.

The decision -- made, incredibly, on the 204th anniversary of the birth of wrestler-turned-President Abraham Lincoln -- was shocking, stunning, seemingly out of nowhere ... and pretty much universally derided. Individuals who didn't know a takedown from a touchdown -- as well as sportswriters, sportscasters and other non-wrestling media who usually don't cover the sport were suddenly up in arms. "You're getting rid of wrestling? That's an ancient sport. What are those idiots at the IOC thinking/drinking/smoking?"

Wrestlers, coaches and fans around the world were just as stunned -- and even angrier. They got up off the mat, they mobilized -- and, enlisted the help of media experts -- to see if they could get the IOC to reverse its decision. Nearly seven months later -- September 8 -- the IOC membership voted to make freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling a provisional -- not core -- sport for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.

What happened in that time period to make the IOC reverse course, and save the ancient sport of wrestling? That's the story of "Saving Wrestling: The Inside Story of the Sport's Epic Fight to Stay in the Olympics," the new book by award-winning wrestling writers Jamie Moffatt and Craig Sesker, just published by Exit Zero Publications.

Prior to this latest effort, Moffatt had written four other books: "A Turning Point" (about Penn State hosting the 1953 NCAAs; written with Roger Olesen); "Wrestlers at the Trials;" "Strobel: Stories From A Life With Wrestling;" and "Adam Frey: A Collection of Blogs and Stories." Sesker, Communications Manager for USA Wrestling -- the governing body for the sport in this country -- has penned the books "Bobby Douglas: Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend," and "Driven to Excellence."

How the book came together

"When I heard the news, I was as stunned as anyone," Jamie Moffatt told InterMat. "However, it occurred to me pretty quickly that it was a recommendation, not a final decision. I also knew that wrestlers wouldn't take it lying down."

Jamie Moffatt
"I immediately thought, 'Someone should chronicle this story.' Then it occurred to me that the story deserved more -- a behind-the-scenes look, what was going on with the IOC, USA Wrestling, the Russians, and the other parties involved."

"I made some quick calls to contacts, seeking help to get a background perspective," Moffatt continued. "They fed me information that wasn't confidential."

"In the beginning I gave wrestling a 50-50 chance."

"I called Craig Sesker within the first two or three days. I know him, but hadn't worked with him. I asked if he would be willing to help. He was on board within ten minutes."

"I started collecting articles. Ended up with 500, 600, 700 articles, from multiple sources. Looked for articles, quotes, whatever, to get my arms around the story, trying to organize my thoughts, and see where it might go, and write a rough version as I went. I didn't have an outline."

"I went to some events in person," said Moffatt. "The first was the presentation at the U.N. (United Nations), and the Rumble on the Rails at Grand Central Station in New York."

"I was working on this in real time, collecting info as it was happening. But I didn't start the actual writing process until after St. Petersburg (the site of the IOC meeting in late May where eight sports made presentations for inclusion at the Olympics; wrestling, along with squash and a combined baseball-softball bid made the cut for a vote in September in Buenos Aires)."

Craig Sesker
"I wanted the completed book out within a month of Buenos Aires."

A division of labor helped make that goal a reality.

"Craig Sesker did lots of the interviews -- (Dan) Gable, the kids at Fargo, Rich Bender (of USA Wrestling). He also went to the wrestling events in Los Angeles and at Niagara Falls. I covered what went on in New York, interviewed Stan Dziedzic."

"All along, we both realized that it was very important for us to provide a behind-the-scenes, behind-closed-doors point of view," said Moffatt. "We didn't want just a chronology, or a documentary."

What Moffatt and Sesker uncovered

One of the strongest elements of "Saving Wrestling" is its ability to provide readers with a strong sense that you are there, sitting in on the meetings, presentations, discussions that were taking place all over the globe.

That comes across early in the book, at the meeting of FILA, the international governing body for wrestling, in the glamorous resort of Phuket in Thailand, held just days after the IOC bombshell announcement but had already been on the schedule. "Saving Wrestling" paints a picture of behind-the-scenes intrigue as long-time FILA head Raphael Martinetti is maneuvered out of his job through a no-confidence vote ... but manages to be an ongoing -- and troubling -- presence throughout the book, and the international fight to return wrestling to the Olympics.

"The immediate reaction was, 'The IOC has no idea of what it's doing, what a bunch of goofs,'" Jamie Moffatt told InterMat. "But, within days, leaders like Bill Scherr, (Stan) Dziedzic, USA Wrestling, said 'We can only hurt ourselves and our cause by condemning the IOC or the other sports in contention.'"

That realization led to the use of professional media types -- public relations firms, advertising agencies, media consultants -- that had worked with the IOC in the past, for example, in helping cities such as Beijing land an Olympic host bid.

"Saving Wrestling" provides details on how these organizations -- and the dedicated individuals working for them -- employed their experience and expertise to coordinate various communications efforts from FILA and its individual national governing bodies such as USA Wrestling, not just to the IOC, but to the worldwide wrestling community.

The level of coordination and cohesive strategy from these media types, bringing together seemingly disparate organizations and individuals who seemed only to share a love of wrestling, is a marvel to this writer, who worked in advertising for more than two decades, and is one of the more fascinating elements of "Saving Wrestling."

Or, to quote former Binghamton University wrestler-turned-actor Billy Baldwin, "Wrestling has done something no sitting president could do: it brought together the U.S., Russia, and Iran."

How did this happen in the first place?

Why did the IOC decide to strike wrestling from the Olympic programme -- a sport with ancient roots, and one of the original sports at the first Modern Olympics in 1896?

"FILA was arrogant, cut off," according to Jamie Moffatt. "They were the only sport not at the IOC's February meeting. Wrestling considered itself to be above being eliminated."

"The IOC couldn't help but notice the difference in attitudes between wrestling and modern pentathlon, a sport that was walking the gangplank, the sport everyone outside the IOC expected would get the axe. They were doing all the little things right. They attended all the meetings. They hobnobbed with IOC members over drinks after the meetings. By contrast, wrestling was arrogant, couldn't be bothered, failed to make connections. Modern pentathlon was part of the IOC fraternity; wrestling wasn't even on campus."

Saving Wrestling also goes into detail on decisions made by FILA since the February 12 IOC announcement, such as rule changes to make the sport more exciting for fans in the stands -- as well as at home - and how to increase the role of women in the sport, not just by offering more opportunities for women to compete on the mat, but also to make decisions at FILA and its individual national organizations.

"There are still things that need to be worked out," Moffatt told InterMat. "There are still differences among the countries who want the rules to suit their advantages. For example, we still need to sort out the weight classes."

Even for wrestling fans who were eagerly, obsessively following news developments on the issue of "Will wrestling return to the Olympics?" the Saving Wrestling book will provide revelations that are surprising and fascinating. We all know how the story ends… yet it still makes for powerful, compelling, page-turning reading. It all goes back to Moffatt and Sesker's ability to provide that behind-the-scenes, you-are-there perspective; even if they weren't actually there, say, inside a meeting, they managed to talk to those who were, and shared those insider views.

One other note: For a book that was essentially written on the fly and available to readers one month after the IOC's good news out of Buenos Aires in September, Saving Wrestling serves up a very polished, professional presentation. Despite being the work of two writers, the narrative is seamless and seemingly of one voice. Adding to the quality impression is the top-notch graphic design, typesetting and photo-reproduction quality that is a hallmark of Exit Zero Publishing products.

Saving Wrestling is available in as an e-book for Kindle readers from Amazon.com, or as an iBook for iPad or iPhone. It's also available in softcover print format; contact Jamie Moffatt via email at emoffatt@aol.com to order.

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