One of Canada’s best-known, respected Olympic wrestling coaches was stunned by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) announced plans Feb. 12 to drop wrestling as a core sport at the 2020 summer Olympic Games.
“This will damage the Olympic movement,” said Victor Zilberman, head coach of the Canadian wrestling team at the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea, and a team wrestling coach at five others.
“Once wrestling is not part of the Olympics, funding from Sport Canada will dry up and there will no longer be the same interest.
“In Canada, it will have a devastating effect.”
Zilberman, 65 and about to retire from his teaching position at Vanier College, said he was in his car driving to work when the news broke.
And like so many, he could hardly believe what he was hearing about a cornerstone Olympic sport so inextricably linked with the original Games of ancient Greece and so basic to the Olympic movement since the modern Games began in 1896.
The IOC’s 15-member executive board voted by secret ballot and allowed the modern pentathlon, which is less popular internationally than wrestling, to stay as one of the 25 “core” sports.
Although the IOC does not make its final decision until September, few seemed hopeful that the decision would be reversed.
Zilberman ventured that the IOC’s idea was to “make space” for new sports with a “higher profile” and, as the New York Times speculated, to make the Games more TV-friendly for a younger international audience.
But such an approach, Zilberman said, is shortsighted, and the decision was widely criticized, including by FILA, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, the sport’s governing world body.
“It will be like having the Winter Games without men’s hockey,” Zilberman said, noting that amateur wrestling remains a popular sport in 180 nations.
In Canada, he said, “if the funding is not there, participation will go down,” and potential talent will be discouraged from entering the sport.
Zilberman also declined to speculate on the potential effect of the IOC decision on the YM-YWHA Wrestling Club based in the Reinitz Wrestling Centre, a state-of-the-art facility funded by former national champion George Reinitz.
In an interview from Florida, Reinitz said he fears that his centre’s days are now numbered. He was also critical of “weak” leadership within FILA that did not do enough to lobby for wrestling with the IOC.
“It is very sad,” he said. “At first I was surprised [by the decision],” he added. “But after I analyzed it, I realized that the IOC is governed by bloc voting, especially from Asian nations, and how this was all manoeuvred to make it happen.
“The IOC operates like a political organization and is all about lobbying. I rub your back and you rub mine, is how it works,” Reinitz said.
As many as 10 wrestlers trained by Zilberman have competed at the Olympics, among them his Montreal Wrestling Club Jewish wrestlers Andy Borodow (1992 and 1996), Garry Kallos (1984), his own son David Zilberman (2008) and Howard Stupp, a member of the Canadian Olympic team in 1976 and 1980 who works for the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, as director of legal affairs.
They’ve also included Canadian Olympians Martine Degrunier (2008) and Guivi Sissaouri, a 1996 silver medalist.
In all, Canada has garnered 16 wrestling medals at the Olympic Games.