By George Georgakopoulos & Spyridoula Spanea
FILA President Nenad Lalovic has told Kathimerini in an exclusive interview that wrestling has actually brought the crisis upon itself as its top-heavy governance in the past did not allow for changes despite warnings by the International Olympic Committee that went unheeded. Therefore the IOC has left the sport out of the Olympics as of 2020, but wrestling has got a chance for a reprieve as it has made the shortlist for the selection of the last sport to be included in the Games of 2020, along with baseball/softball and squash.
Lalovic, a 55-year-old Serb who confesses his love for Greece, came to the country for a one-off international wrestling tournament held last weekend at Ancient Olympia, at the very site of the Ancient Olympics, to highlight the historic trajectory of the sport to the world.
The event also illustrated the significance of the changes to rules and administrative patterns he has brought after taking over at the international wrestling federation, following the resignation of his predecessor in the aftermath of the IOC decision in February.
Lalovic also makes no secret of his desire to have a permanent high-profile wrestling tournament in the birthplace of the Olympics, if this does not affect the preservation of the monuments.
This is a really tough time for you as the burden of preserving the Olympic status of wrestling has fallen on your shoulders after the resignation of your predecessor. How are you personally coping with that?
I work all the time so I do not have any time to think about that. The pressure comes from everywhere, but it’s a big challenge. I like challenges. I never saw myself before as the president of FILA. Even being a [FILA] bureau member was not really my ambition. When I was proposed by the great majority of my colleagues I accepted the position, but now I have to fulfill my duty. And my job now is to save wrestling.
When you took over as the president you gave all the delegates a little present, a small mirror, saying they would see there who is responsible for implementing changes in the sport. Who should the mirror reflect when showing who is responsible for wrestling getting kicked out of the Olympics?
That mirror has nothing to do with this. These people have to understand that the mirror is showing the most important people in wrestling. They have to see their own faces, they are the presidents of all the national federations. Our federation in the future must be built like a pyramid with a very strong base. That is what we did not have before. We had a kind of reverse pyramid: All the burden on one man, the president. That is not the way to operate.
What are the actions you have taken to restore the Olympic status of wrestling?
First to clean our own backyard, by democratizing our federation, to make more wrestling people participate actively in the life of the federation, which was not the case before, and to introduce more women in governance. Then we improve our sport. Then those improvements try to make it understandable to people. Then to do away with the problems we have had with officiating. Now we work in a different way. All bureau members have been removed from the officiating commission, we have voted a new constitution with at least one woman as a vice-president, and will have a new athletes’ commission formed, which along with the president should be chosen by their peers – that will be done on the occasion of the World Championship of 2013. I want our athletes to participate in these elections and I want the person elected to be a member of the board as we have to hear what the athletes are saying about the sport. Before they never had the chance to say a word.
Do you believe you will succeed in retaining wrestling in the Olympics when the decision is made in September?
I will not say that I am confident, but I am optimistic. Without that I would not be here!
What would you say your chances are? Given there are three sports shortlisted, would you say you have 33 percent chances?
Yes, 33 percent I would say.
The changes introduced have indeed made the sport more understandable…
Yes, in the championships where we have introduced the changes we have already seen an increase of 178 percent in technical points. We are punishing inactive athletes, the rules are much more understandable, the interpretation of the rules gives much less liberty to the referees and that was the goal, it is much more objective.
We have seen so many rule changes over the last few years. How sure can we be that we won’t see any more changes in a year or two, e.g. if a new president is elected in 2014?
It’s possible. But the results and the statistics we have now are not indicating that. We have had many attempts to change the rules. My colleagues who are more specialized than myself in rules and techniques, like former world and Olympic champions, active coaches etc., had tried several times in the past to change the rules but they did not succeed, as they were not allowed by the former governance. They were told “we cannot make many changes because of the International Olympic Committee”, but that was a lie! I found out that the IOC was insisting on changing the rules because the sport was not interesting for the media.
So, in a way the sport has been punished by the IOC for its resistance to change. Is this the reason why it has been left out of the Olympics?
Yes, this is the one! The IOC is in charge of its events and it is quite natural that it should want all its events to be interesting to the spectatorship. We were not listening to these warnings. Worse, we, the board members, were not informed of that. In conclusion I would say that the recommendation by the IOC to leave wrestling out of the Olympics is mainly our fault, FILA’s fault, not the IOC. We have to look after out the sport ourselves, make sure our backyard is clean.
We were under the impression that people from wrestling blamed the IOC for the decision, as well as people such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and so on…
No, maybe they blamed the IOC in a small part, because the decision was so rude and so brutal. Maybe some announcements should have been done before, but maybe there were some, like a warning, but we did not know about that.
Are you satisfied with the support you have got from the Greek state?
They have done even more than we would ask for. They allowed us to hold this international tournament [at Ancient Olympia] in the place that they do not allow anybody to enter in such a way. As a historical monument it is really difficult to imagine they would allow a competition inside, but it happened. It is very important for us at this difficult moment for our sport, the worst moment in the last 3,000 years for wrestling. They gave us the opportunity to send a message to everybody to understand what our sport is. Because it is a sport inside the gene of the human race: When you leave two children in a room and they quarrel what do they do? They would wrestle.
Do you think there should be a high-profile competition on a permanent basis at Ancient Olympia?
I would like to see that, but I think it is quite difficult to imagine, because you have to preserve those monuments for the next 10,000 years. We are not damaging them, though.
Would you like to see a formula that would combine the ancient character of the monuments with the modern character of wrestling, perhaps not in the Palaestra, but nearby…
Yes, of course. We got here to learn and repeat all the knowledge of our ancestors and to visit the birthplace of the Olympics, which is also the birthplace of our sport, the official one at least, as wrestling has always existed. People wrestled in Africa and in the Caucasus, the American Indians did so, even the Ancient Egyptians wrestled. We have murals in Egypt showing wrestling, dating from 2,000 BC.
There is this Turkish wrestler, Riza Kayaalp, who spoke in racist terms against the Greeks and the Armenians on Twitter during last month’s Mediterranean Games. What is your view on the issue?
He was given an immediate suspension of six months by the FILA judge, and he has the right to appeal. I do not know the exact details as I do not interfere in such activities. We have a prosecutor and a judge. The prosecutor informs the judge about what happens in such incidents. I know this person, he is a young boy and a very good wrestler. I am shocked that he has done this, but it may have been an emotional moment for him, I am not sure that he really thinks that way. But I am not here to judge, just to secure all the democratic procedures, the eventual punishment and so on. The investigation goes on, there will probably be a hearing, an appeal may be.
Wrestling has not really got a doping problem. Why is that? Do you think the IOC should view wrestling in a more positive light because of that?
Of course. We do have some cases, but it is due to the lack of education of some wrestlers or coaches. In some countries the sale of such substances is treated in the same way as drug sales. In my country, in Serbia, the law is the same for narcotics dealers as doping dealers. It is the same thing, there is no difference. May be the IOC should work on improving the sanctions against the dealers. We do not have such problems as top wrestlers understand they have to have three training sessions per day to be a champion. If you do less, nothing will help you! I do not know much about these things but I can understand that doping is also about timing, when to start and when to stop, and in wrestling it is difficult to know when you are going to compete, for example. Still, from this year we have started making many more tests out of competition, I have made the decision to increase the tests five times, with immediate effect.
Have you ever practised wrestling yourself? I understand your son did…
No, not myself. My son did, he was a Yugoslavia champion as a junior and competed internationally. It is because of my son that I entered wrestling and I also had some friends of my age who were wrestlers.