The International Olympic Committee’s proposal to boot wrestling from the 2020 Summer Olympic Games is creating waves in the South Caucasus, especially in Georgia, where the sport is known for producing medals and glory.
In the years since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Olympic programs in former Soviet republics like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have struggled to revive their former moxie. The wrestling mat has been one of the few areas in which the countries have remained competitive at the Olympic level.
At the London Games in 2012, for example, Georgia won six Olympic medals in wrestling events. For Armenia and Azerbaijan, the sport is also important: Azerbaijani wrestlers brought home seven of the country’s 10 Olympic medals, including two golds, and Armenian wrestlers gained two of Armenia’s three medals.
Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are unlikely to fare as well in any of the sports suggested by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on February 12 as alternatives to wrestling. Former Georgian wrestler Gabriel Barjadze, author of a history of Georgian wrestling, contends that an Olympics without wrestling would be “fatal” for Georgia.
“Half of our Olympic champions are wrestlers. We have 16 Olympic wrestling champions and 34 Olympic champions, total,” Barjadze said.
Levon Julfalakian, the head coach of Armenia’s Greco-Roman wrestling team, noted that removing wrestling from the Summer Olympics would be a blow “for all countries,” not just wrestling-centric countries in the South Caucasus.
“There are a lot of countries in the world where wrestling is developing, starting with Russia and the United States and ending with small republics,” said Julfalakian. “It will really impact the young wrestlers. We don’t have the right to do that.”
Low television ratings and disappointing ticket sales for wrestling events at the London Games have been cited as reasons for the IOC’s proposal to drop the sport. A final decision is expected by the IOC’s September meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In an old Tbilisi gym one recent weekday evening, several dozen young wrestlers, candidates for Georgia’s 2016 Olympic wrestling squad, could be seen practicing body throws in a cramped facility the Georgian Wrestling Federation has used to train world-class competitors since 1968. The faded green walls rang with the sound of backs slamming against the mats while half a dozen coaches -- many former Olympic wrestlers and world champions – shouted encouragement and instructions. With a budget of just 2 million lari ($1.2 million), the Federation relies heavily on individual coaching and what it describes as Georgians’ “genetic” talent for wrestling.
Georgian Wrestling Federation Vice-President Temo Kazarashvili, a 1982 world champion, worries that young people will lose interest in the sport if the plan to remove it from the Olympic schedule goes through. “For Georgia, especially since this is a wrestling culture, that would be very bad, especially concerning [Georgia’s role] in the Olympics,” Kazarashvili said. “[Young people] will go to a different sport, but they will not have … the same result as they have in wrestling.”
Some wrestling officials remain optimistic that the IOC’s decision will be reversed. Although the proposal had caused “great surprise and discontent” in Azerbaijan, the idea “is only an initiative,” said Azerbaijani Wrestling Federation General Secretary Ajdar Jafarov in an English-language statement posted on the Federation’s website.
“The same initiative was raised after the  Athens Summer Olympics, however, the final decision then was made pro-wrestling,” Jafarov noted. “We believe and hope that the same will happen this time.”
Jafarov did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org request for additional comment.
Georgian Deputy Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Tamaz Tevzadze shares Jafarov’s optimism. So far, Tevzadze said there is no proof that alternative sports, such as squash, wakeboarding or roller sports, can surpass wrestling in terms of popularity, global participation or ticket sales, three of the criteria used to decide on Olympic sports.
Even if the sport loses its Olympic status, he asserted, Georgians will continue wrestling. Tradition leaves them no alternative. “Georgians have been wrestling for centuries,” he said.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.