By George Georgakopoulos and Spyridoula Spanea
Wrestling is looking up after the tremor that rocked it last year with the temporary exclusion from the Olympic schedule that was lifted a few months later. The sport’s international governing body (FILA) continues the reforms in this most traditional of sports, aiming at inclusion in the Olympic core when the International Olympic Committee compiles the list of essential sports of the Games in 2017. Greece will play a key part in this campaign.
FILA President Nenad Lalovic spoke to Kathimerini about the sport’s effort to reach out to more people and more countries, by transforming its image without changing anything of its spirit, which the Serb head of the federation summarizes in the words: “We hate blood!”
He also explained the changes FILA is introducing to wrestling and to itself, he praised the reforming effort of new IOC president Thomas Bach and stressed the significance of having international wrestling events at Ancient Olympia.
Lalovic was in Greece on the occasion of the 2014 World Beach Wrestling Championship that took place on July 3-6 at Paralia Katerinis, in central Macedonia, and revealed that this fast-growing form of wrestling will form part of the World Beach Games.
How did you see the organization of this World Beach Wrestling Championship in Greece? Were you happy with the hosting effort?
Of course, it was fantastic as we had expected it to be. The championship will make the sport more popular in Greece, too. We’ll have to think about beach wrestling seriously in the future, as it will form part of the World Beach Games and we have also negotiated to participate in the Asian Beach Games in 2015.
Do you agree that beach wrestling closer to the ancient forms of wrestling?
Yes, I do! The sand had always been the playground for wrestling.
Do you think one day we might see beach wresting in the Olympics, as has happened with beach volleyball?
You never know… It’s an interesting discipline, so why not? But we are far from that now. We have to improve it first, as its matches are too short. They can be over in 20 seconds. They do not show enough of the technique of the wrestlers, this is the problem. It has got more to do with strength.
Greece is emerging from its economic crisis, and hosted a senior world championship in a sport after a long time. Can sports be this country’s ticket out of the crisis?
I don’t know if it can help Greece to get out of the crisis, but I’m sure it can help people to overcome this trouble, because the psychological problem is more difficult than the economic. Sport can be a psychological boost for the nation.
Hosting a wrestling event at the unique setting of Ancient Olympia last year helped FILA’s cause to preserve the Olympic status of the sport. Do you think we might be any closer to a major event on a regular basis at the ancient palaestra of Olympia?
I hope so. We think that the Olympic Academy should be more widely known in the world. It is not known enough. I spoke with the president [of the Academy] and we think that the international federations should be more proactive in promoting the Academy. We should have meetings, seminars over there. The only problem is with the transportation as you need four hours by car to get there from the Athens airport. The new highway will help. The whole place there is fantastic.
Can FILA and the Greek federation ask for the palaestra from the Greek Archaeological Council, as that would help the image and the popularity of the sport on global level?
I can understand they cannot do that on the site of the ancient wrestling events. But on the field in front of the Academy, probably yes. There it can be possible and this would be good enough. You have to feel the atmosphere, the kind of isolation you have in that place.
Before you took over, FILA had issues with its transparency and its image to the public, which you appear to have resolved. Do you think there is scope for the International Olympic Committee to improve on these same fronts, too?
The IOC is working now to upgrade its governance and everything that goes with it. It’s going to be a long process. FILA had to do it in less than a year! In eight months. It needed a shock, but you’d better have a shock! New president Thomas Bach is reforming the IOC in a very good way; that does not mean the former president, Jacques Rogge was not doing a good job. But the times go on and you need to adjust every day. I said the same thing to colleagues from other international federations, everyone needs to do the same in their federations. Especially in terms of democratization. It’s not like 10 years ago, even five years from now. Times are changing very fast and we have to be ready for things before they happen.
What changes are you planning to introduce to wrestling, to render it more attractive?
Changing the name is a different approach to the way FILA is known in the world. The current acronym is in French, but it is not a popular abbreviation as it was in the 1960s. I would like that everybody knows from the name of the federation what it does. That is what “United World Wrestling” means, it shows it embraces all forms of wrestling.
We also intend to expand our sport from the East of Europe to the West. The only major national championship in western Europe is in Germany. In the last European championship there was a medal even for Austria, Ireland and Great Britain. That’s besides spreading it to Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand for instance.
My focus now is to prepare wrestling for the IOC review in 2017 when it will decide which sports will be included in the core and which in the additional program. I want wrestling to be a core sport in 2017 so that we never speak again about whether we will be on the program or not. That is possible only if you are updating and upgrading the sport on a daily basis. Remember it was a core sport for 3,000 years and in one morning we lost it, but that was the result of our work, total negligence.
What are the elements that FILA could import from commercial forms of wrestling such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)?
The rules have been revolutionized, but we have not changed anything of the spirit of wrestling. We now want to improve the technique of the sport. The first step is with cadets, as they cannot fight any more on the ground (par terre), they have to stand up all the time. This is for two reasons: The first is they are not sufficiently developed to take their opponent from the ground and lift him up, they are only up to 17 years old, and the second is that it gives us an opportunity to improve their technique while standing. With the time we have lost the technique that wrestlers have when they are standing, but we are going to restore it. It does not seem to be a big step, but it is a huge step. It is going to change wrestling completely,with much more technique.
In May 2013 we adopted the World Wrestling Plan for the reorganization of the governance of the sport on three levels within three years. The First year is for the international federation, the second for the continental federations and the third for the national federations.
To keep wrestling interesting it must be shown to the spectators. It must be effective, and if it is effective for them it will be for sponsors. We’ll have to produce an event, somebody has to watch it and somebody has to finance it. We want the wheel to turn much faster.
MMA is not the solution. We will surprise you next year, by the presentation of the sport. We are not going to copy-paste other sports. We want to be original, we are an original sport, we are completely different.
We will also have to think of another way of ranking the wrestlers, we have already started it and it is very popular. It is already on our current website. By adopting our new name and logo in September we will also launch our new website. It will be very different and interesting, being interactive for the federations, for the wrestlers, the coaches and of course for the press. We’ll work with national federations to have the website in their languages, too, as long as we find sponsors with advertising to finance the translation. I can tell you that in 2012 we had 13,000 followers in the social media in 2012, and we are close to half a million now.
Did the reinstatement of wrestling in the Olympic family bring any changes to FILA’s corporate sponsorship?
Of course, we got a few new sponsors and we are now negotiating with more interested parties.
Is FILA planning to regulate the participation of athletes in the numerous events held across the world for commercial purposes? Could it follow boxing’s example in directing some of the revenues from some events toward the development of wrestling?
I’m not sure that their intentions are honest. They may organize such professional events for the money; they may just want to have the young athletes attracted to the sport and to make a show. We are against any show with blood. Absolutely against it! This is the difference between wrestling and other sports. We hate blood! It is unsuccessful wrestlers who compete in such events. Why should they pay money to us? In America they organize such events and they never pay anything to the American federation. I have never heard of anything like that. This is business. It’s like having Formula 1 help traffic policing!
What is FILA’s relationship with Sambo and its international federation?
We have good relations, but we are absolutely separate. In the past we were together but that was not functioning. Sambo is a national sport, for one nation. There are many styles like that. What we have that nobody has is traditional wrestling. There is no tribe, no nation that has not got wrestling. That’s why we are unique. We had traditional wrestling in Greece too, and this is something that FILA should take care of, because these are the roots of wrestling, as they are to be found in many parts of the world!
Besides your son’s wrestling career, you had had no personal involvement with the sport until you took over as a national federation official. Did you ever get any doubts or second thoughts about getting involved with wrestling?
No, no doubts. I knew I would succeed, I don’t know why but I knew. First I had to determine who are my allies and then start the war.