(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
BUENOS AIRES – Wrestling is back in the Olympics, but its new life also will bring about a new look.
“We will change everything,” said Nenad Lalovic, the president of wrestling’s international federation (FILA). “The whole scenery of the venue.” The red-and-yellow mat will go the way of the full Nelson, replaced perhaps by shades of blue.
“Our singlets are so old fashioned,” Lalovic said. Freestyle wrestlers could wear fight shorts and a tight-fitting microfiber T-shirt. Greco-Roman wrestlers may even go shirtless.
Actor Billy Baldwin, who was part of wrestling’s delegation, said he could see the change for entertainment value. “It’s why beach volleyball is on for 17 hours in prime time and we’re buried at 3 in the morning,” he said.
When Baldwin asked a U.S. wrestler how she would feel about a new uniform, she told him: “I’ve gotta start working on my abs.”
Taking the lead from the world of mixed martial arts, wrestling is thinking big and bold when it comes to showmanship. Staged weigh-ins, walk-out music, lighting, visual effects and video screen replays are being discussed.
FILA officials have had meetings with entertainment and broadcasting experts as well as potential sponsors to increase the sport’s appeal.
“Of course we have external help for that because we are wrestlers — we know much, but not everything,” Lalovic said with a laugh.
The changes will be rolled out gradually, but the big unveiling will be at the 2015 world championships held, appropriately enough, in Las Vegas. “Yes, the entertainment capital of the world,” said Jim Scherr, who helped present the sport’s bid.
But what happens in Vegas, won’t stay in Vegas. “Las Vegas will be a big proving ground for the new ideas. Hopefully they’ll be perfected there and then taken to Rio,” Scherr said, referring to the 2016 Olympics.
Though the sport has consulted with MMA execs, don’t expect wrestling to bring that sport into its fold. UFC stars frequently come out of college wrestling and there is a good relationship between the groups, but the sports are too different, FILA vice president Stan Dziedzic said.
“When you look at everything you learn as a wrestler, every rule is to be able to dominate your opponent but never to injure them,” Dziedzic said.
Throughout its presentation, wrestling focused on one theme: “Wrestling is not a new sport, but the wrestling we are presenting now is a new wrestling,” Lalovic said.
Though the seven months since the sport was dropped from the Olympics were stressful, wrestling emerged as a stronger sport. “The biggest value was to modernize our sport,” Lalovic said. “This crisis gave us the strength to change.”
(Pictured: UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman at May’s “Rumble on the Rails: Iran at USA” wrestling event)