After Stalling, Wrestling Adapts to Remain an Olympic Sport

After wrestling was removed from the core sports program of the Summer Olympics seven months ago, the sport’s international body made drastic changes to keep it relevant. Its work paid off when wrestling was voted back into the Games over the weekend.

Associations don’t do well with change. That’s an idea that gets talked about often and is one the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), the governing body for the sport of amateur wrestling, was forced to confront head-on when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to remove wrestling from the core sports program of the Summer Olympics Games in February.

Former IOC President Jacques Rogge said the decision was based on wrestling’s inability to adapt to changing times, the complexity of its rules, and a lack of diversity both in the number of women’s competitions and the number of women in decision-making positions.

“Basically what you got to see was a sport that ignored what they were asked to do, ignored what the trends were, and ignored what the shrinking audiences were telling them,” said Rhea Blanken, president of Results Technology, Inc. “You can equate this to shrinking membership, dues dropping, minimal attendance at events, not a lot of eyeballs on the website—count it anyway you want.”

Strategic plans, when they’re written, are as perfect as they are until the first step is taken.

By cutting wrestling, considered a sacred cow in most circles because of the sport’s ties to the Ancient Olympic Games, the IOC pushed FILA to make drastic changes that included replacing its president, addressing the issues that Rogge pointed out, and enhancing its social media presence and brand imaging. The result: Wrestling was voted back into the 2020 and 2024 Summer Olympics over the weekend.

Since associations don’t have the luxury to be voted back in when things go south, creating a culture that embraces modernization and change is critical, Blanken said. And it starts by taking the “personality” out of the board and creating a business environment.

“What happens, people have friends or mentors or bosses who preceded them and started certain projects, and they won’t be receptive when you want to come in and change or end that project,” she said. “But when you take the personality out of it and look at the lessons learned from those past projects—good and bad—people realize it’s not personal, and you can actually engage.”

Equally important for an organization is having a strong, well-used strategic plan, she said.

“The strategic plan has to be a living document, not something that goes on the shelf in a three-ring binder,” she said. “Strategic plans, when they’re written, are as perfect as they are until the first step is taken, and mistakes are declared, and lessons have to be learned. We never true our course. We don’t go back and reference the document to make sure that we’re zigging and zagging towards where we need to go, but that’s a methodology you should be taking into every meeting.”

How do you ensure that your association is staying relevant with your members and in your industry? Share your story in the comments.

Male freestyle wrestlers Jabrayil Hasanov of Azerbaijan (top) and Livan Lopez Azcuy of Cuba (bottom) wrestle at the 2012 Olympics in London. (photo by Simon Q/Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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