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Wrestling eyes quickfire return to the 2020 Games mat

By Karolos Grohmann

(Reuters) - From an ignominious Olympic exit to a Games return in less than eight months, wrestling can complete a remarkable turnaround when the International Olympic Committee next month votes in one new sport for the 2020 Games.

Wrestling was surprisingly taken off the 2020 Olympics by the IOC Executive Board in a February vote as the IOC looked to refresh its sports program.

It has since battled back into contention, joining squash and baseball/softball as the three candidates on a shortlist for one spot on the program of the 2020 Olympics and a cut of the Games' millions of dollars of revenues.

The IOC will select the one sport at its session in Buenos Aires on September 8.

For wrestling, clear frontrunners to win back the spot, it will be the culmination of a frantic seven-month period that saw more changes to rules, categories and the administration than in entire decades before combined.

The decision to exclude wrestling, a sport that was part of the ancient Olympics as well as every modern Games apart from 1900, drew almost instant support from senior IOC members themselves.

"I have the impression that the international federation has understood very well the messages sent to them," IOC Vice President Thomas Bach said last month.

"The international federation has drawn its conclusions. It is now here with a new president, new program and new ideas for the sport. That is why I personally believe that wrestling has good chances to come through the vote in September."

STRONG SUPPORT

The decision also released a wave of support from wrestling powerhouses including the United States, Russia and Iran, among others, as well as senior politicians in many countries, including Russia's Vladimir Putin.

"I am quite optimistic because otherwise I would stay at home," Nenad Lalovic, international federation (FILA) president, told Reuters this week.

"I am happy everyone is speaking so well about wrestling but the job is not yet done," said Lalovic, who took over from Swiss Raphael Martinetti following February's shock vote.

"We did everything possible in this short period. We hope we did enough," said the burly Serb. "We implemented and not only decided. We have changed the whole sport and already implemented all these in the junior and cadet world championships."

For baseball and softball the vote is the peak of an eight-year battle to return to the Games after the two sports were taken off the Olympic program in 2005.

The two sports have since created a joint confederation in a bid to increase their chances to return as a single sport.

"We reviewed our sports and improved key aspects of how baseball and softball can be represented as sports at the 2020 Olympic Games," said softball chief Don Porter and baseball's international president Riccardo Fraccari this week.

"The campaign is the culmination of eight years of hard work to better understand how baseball's and softball's massive worldwide support base.... can be represented in new ways that are in alignment with the Olympic movement," they said this week.

While the two sports will no doubt have improved their chances by joining forces, it is difficult to see how they could edge past wrestling, with all its Olympic funding, wide global backing and clear IOC support as well as support from the United States, also the heartland for baseball/softball.

CELEBRITY SUPPORT

Squash has also pulled out all the stops with top players backing the bid and highlighting its rising global popularity and even had top tennis players Andy Murray and Roger Federer join the call for Olympic squash among several non-squash celebrities.

"I am delighted to see the growing list of famous sportsmen and women from different sports around the world backing our bid, said world squash federation CEO Andrew Shelley.

"This is a really exciting time for squash across the world and the vote on September 8 is something the global squash community is utterly focused on."

Whether they will manage to convince the IOC membership of the added value the sports brings to the Games in their final presentation in Argentina remains to be seen.

Should, however, wrestling return to the Games it will have been a hapless attempt by the IOC to reform the sports program after going into the 2020 Games with the same sports as before the procedure to replace one sport started.

Other sports, such as wakeboarding, roller sports, sports climbing, karate and wushu failed to make the shortlist in May.

"Should we win the vote then it would be difficult for them (squash and baseball/softball)," Lalovic said "I know for them it would be difficult because they have competed hard for many years."

"But if it does not happen (for wrestling) then it will be even more difficult for us. It is not the same to fail trying to enter the Games, and to be in the Games and then taken out," he said.

(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ossian Shine)

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