“I think in order for us to move forward, we needed to identify the shortcomings of the past and work hard to improve them.” That quote could have come from any number of wrestling coaches talking about their teams and individual wrestlers. The ethos of identifying where you aren’t good enough and working hard to get better is the bedrock of wrestling development. However, that quote came from then International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) and now United World Wrestling (UWW) President Nenad Lalovic announcing the branding efforts involved in FILA becoming UWW.
In an arena plagued by corruption, scandal and the evolution of sports from amateur pass-times to big business, it is a wonder that any international sports governing body lasts for very long, but few have undergone as dramatic a re-branding effort as UWW. Despite the near constant problems with soccer’s governing body (FIFA) and the IAAF’s (Track and Field) widespread doping problems, they continue to soldier on under the same name and, for the most part, the same logos they’ve always used. This speaks to just how dire the situation was in FILA’s final days.
FILA was born in 1921 as the International Amateur Wrestling Federation (IAWF). The IAWF was the first international federation devoted specifically to wrestling and, even in those days, one of the driving forces behind the move was to legitimize the sport in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Through World War II, international wrestling survived and evolved into the sport we know today under the IAWF.
Roger Coulon of France became the IAWF President in 1952. He changed the name of wrestling’s governing body to the International Federation of Amateur Wrestling (FILA). Coulon was a fantastic President and FILA thrived under his leadership. He recognized the importance of wrestling’s relationship with the Olympic Games and drove FILA to become the first International Federation to move their headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland, home of the IOC. He was also credited with creating the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) as a way for governing bodies of various sports to communicate and collaborate on the broad issues facing international sport.
While FILA remained on track after Coulon’s death in 1971, the 2002 election of President Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland would signal the end of the organization as we knew it. Martinetti was not all bad, of course, but he was at the helm for a disastrous set of rule changes, ushering in the ball-grab era, and, of course, wrestling losing its place as a core sport in the Olympic Games. Martinetti resigned three days after the IOC Executive Board voted to recommend wrestling be dropped as a core sport. Drastic action was necessary to save the sport. It would have to happen under new leadership.
Nenad Lalovic is that new leadership. He has piloted wrestling back into the Olympics, back to a rule set that makes sense and he has the support of many in the wrestling world who had soured on FILA. The re-branding efforts to become United World Wrestling are a signal that the dark days are behind us, but we should never forget the lessons learned in the last days of FILA.
FILA was once an energetic, innovative organization that was good for wrestling, though not without its flaws. It only took one group of misguided leadership to completely demolish the track record of that organization and, nearly, the sport itself. Vigilance is a must in the competitive world of international sport. Wrestling is in a much better place now than we were in 2013, no question. However, unless we continue to push for growth and innovation, we could find ourselves back on the outside looking in without a good alternative. Good work has been done by UWW. There is more to do.