Modern Pentathlon Has Worked To Stay In Games
In 1992, Rob Stull remembers walking around the Olympic Village in Barcelona when he noticed U.S. track and field legend Edwin Moses posting fliers.
Moses, an athlete representative for the International Olympic Committee, invited those competing in Spain to meet with the IOC's executive board. It was rare and somewhat unprecedented access to the most important decision-makers in global sports.
There was a hitch, though.
"It's the middle of the Games, in the middle of the afternoon, in a beautiful village, right on a beach," Stull said. "You see where I'm going with this? Who was going to skip all that and show up for a meeting?"
Stull, a three-time Olympian in modern pentathlon, hit the pause button on thoughts of sunshine, waves and bikinis. The sport faced an even more critical moment than anyone considered - much like wrestling, which must fight to regain its Olympic footing after a staggering IOC vote to drop it from the program in 2020 and '24.
An idea formed in the mind of Stull as he stood near the bronzed, highly-conditioned bodies.
"(IOC leader Juan Antonio) Samaranch was like the Pope in my eyes. That wasn't someone I thought I'd ever have a chance to talk to," said Stull, managing director of USA Modern Pentathlon who helped the U.S. win a team silver medal in 1984. "In the past, someone would ask how our sport was looking and it was always a very positive response.
"Well, they were wrong."
Stull contacted leaders of his sport from other countries, and found none had heard about the IOC meeting. He lobbied them to make time to meet with IOC leaders to gauge the security and status of their sport on the Olympic program.
The thought in Stull's head: "Nobody is going to show up to a bunch of suits at 2 in the afternoon in the middle of the Olympic Games."
Stull was right.
"There were a half-dozen of us (modern pentathlon) and we were basically the only ones in the room, other than one or two other athletes," Stull said of the sport that includes fencing, swimming, horseback riding, shooting and running. "The meeting was an hour, and we basically were able to use all of that time talking to them about our sport."
The group found out modern pentathlon faced a threat of being bounced from the group of core Olympic sports if it failed to evolve.
"Samaranch told us, even though he knew the history, etc., every sport would have to maintain its relevancy and fit the younger audiences," Stull said. "We asked 'What can we do?' He rattled off a list of bullet points. You're taking too many days on the program for too few medals, so we changed from four days of competition to one.
"Basically, we did everything they asked us to do. There were a bunch of suggestions, and it was like a recipe to protect the sport."
Wrestling has scrambled to shake IOC concerns about complacency and lack of modernization as it continues to tweak Olympic offerings.
A vote next month in St. Petersburg, Russia, will determine what sports among eight make a smaller list for consideration as an addition to the Olympics in 2020 and '24. The final vote for the spot is scheduled for September in Buenos Aires.
The challenge for wrestling: It's trying to prove a commitment to growing the sport over months - a process that modern pentathlon successfully accomplished over nearly two decades.
There's a perception that modern pentathlon sat on the IOC's possible chopping block in February, but the sport's officials shook more hands, attended more meetings, won the hearts-and-minds battle and pushed wrestling into the Olympic danger zone.
"That's wrong. That's not true," Stull said. "Everyone in the movement has to stay current. I think that perception was more of a media thing."
The Des Moines Register requested an interview with Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC leader who is vice president of the sport's international governing body. Samaranch Jr. is credited most for working behind the signs to maximize political positioning and helping to protect his sport.
An IOC communications official requested the chance to review questions and answers from the possible interview, citing concerns about possible language-barrier issues - despite acknowledging he speaks English well.
The Register would not agree to those conditions.
Stull, however, spoke from his perspective in the United States - and as a former international athlete.
Wrestling awarded 72 medals among 344 competitors at the most recent Olympics in London, compared to six medals for 72 athletes in modern pentathlon.
"The IOC sets the participation numbers," Stull said. "Would we like to have more competitors? Absolutely. But they can't let everyone have 1,000 people and keep the athlete total around the 10,000 number they want to manage."
Among the changes modern pentathlon enacted after meeting with Samaranch Sr. and the IOC:
- Pistol: "We changed from the .22 pistol to an air pistol. It helped with safety, since it's obviously tough to take real guns across borders. Plus, you didn't as many safety requirements, which helped with costs and those sorts of things. And now, we can hold competitions in the middle of a town, rather than out in the middle of nowhere. Now, your fan base is already right there instead of convincing them to travel to you. We can literally compete now in the middle of downtown."
- Youth development: "You want to make yourself more attractive to youth and more relevant. We accomplished that through the use of laser pistols. I wasn't sure about it at first, but it's the video game factor. The kids today, it's what kids do - it's what they know. They play Xbox. They think it's cool. I shot it and understood why kids spend a zillion hours on video games. It's addicting."
- Increased focus on gender equity and diversity.
"Twenty years ago, when Samaranch gave us that list, it was a wake-up call," Stull said. "Hey, we're not the golden boy. We have to work to keep our seat at the table."
Stull paused again, just as he had back in 1992.
"By the way," he said. "I'm a big fan of wrestling, and I know a lot of people in the sport. I truly wish them the best."