Wrestlers across the region are angry with the International Olympic Committee, but some agree the sport needs a facelift.
By Cornelis van Zweeden for Southeast European Times in Dubrovnik -- 25/02/13
Turkish wrestler Selcuk Cebi (right) competes in a 2011 tournament in Dortmund. [Turkish Wrestling Federation]
The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to drop wrestling from the Olympic Games starting in 2020 was met with anger and defiance across Southeast Europe.
Wrestling's history has deep roots in the region, and the sport has been included in every summer Olympics program since 1904.
A former Olympic wrestling champion from Bulgaria, Valentin Jordanov said he would return his gold medal to the IOC in protest.
Jordanov, who is head of the Bulgaria Wrestling Federation, said in a letter to IOC President Jacques Rogue that his action was "an expression of solidarity with the millions of athletes and fans" condemning the plan to drop wrestling.
Two Bulgarian wrestling coaches said they were planning a hunger strike, news portal Dnevnik.bg reported.
Sports representatives in Greece and Turkey said they would ask their governments to appeal the IOC decision.
Kostas Thanos, a Greek wrestler at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, blamed the move on commercialisation of the Games. Referring to low television ratings for wrestling, Thanos told SETimes, "If that is the reason for their decision, the IOC should change the name from Olympic Games to 'Business Games'."
Thanos said his country should consider barring the IOC from using the Olympic flame.
"This is not just your ordinary sport, this is an Olympic pillar," he said. "We'll turn the marbles of the Parthenon upside down if they don't reverse the decision."
In a written statement to SETimes, the IOC defended commercialisation.
"Without sponsorship funding the Olympic Games would not happen in its current format and athletes from a number of nations would simply not be able to compete," the statement said.
Wrestling is a popular sport across the Balkans, although it has lost some of its appeal in recent decades. In Bulgaria, after the collapse of communism, some wrestlers muscled their way into organised crime. In 2003, wrestler turned billionaire Iliya Pavlov died in a gangland shooting.
Yet, wrestling remains significant in the region. In Macedonia, wrestler Mogamed Ibragimov is the only athlete to win an Olympic medal since the country's independence.
Turkey, whose wrestlers have won two-thirds of the country's Olympic medals, reacted strongly to the IOC announcement.
"Wrestling constitutes the backbone of the Olympic Games," Hamza Yerlikaya, head of the country's wrestling federation, told SETimes. "Istanbul is a strong candidate for the 2020 Olympics. It is unthinkable to host the Games here without wrestling."
British Minister for Sport and Tourism Hugh Robertson last week publicly supported Istanbul's bid for the 2020 Games. Madrid and Tokyo also are vying to host the 2020 Olympics, and the IOC will announce its selection September.
Some wrestling enthusiasts said they accepted the need for modernisation.
Former Macedonia wrestler Shaban Seidi, who won bronze medals for Yugoslavia in the 1980 and 1984 Games, told SETimes, "Perhaps we need to change the rules, and make the sport more attractive."
Riza Kayalp, who won bronze for Turkey in the 2012 London Games, told SETimes that wrestling should be popularised through sponsorships and better media coverage.
In Albania, wrestlers expressed shock but also hope. The elimination of wrestling from the Olympic program will not be finalized until a vote of the IOC General Assembly in September.
"I am sure the IOC Assembly will not approve this proposal," two-time Olympian Sahit Prizreni told SETimes.
That was also the view in Serbia, where the wrestling federation derived hope from a leadership change on February 16th at the International Wrestling Federation.
Zeljko Trajkovic, head of the Serbian wrestling federation, told SETimes the previous federation president did not do enough to promote the sport.
"We dismissed Raphael Martinetti and nominated Nenad Lalovic from Serbia as the acting president," Trajkovic added. "I don't think wrestling will be removed from the Olympics."
Correspondents HK Tzanis in Athens, Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul, Katica Djurovic in Belgrade, Biljana Lajmanovska in Skopje, Erl Murati in Tirana, Svetla Dimitrova in Sofia and Ana Lovakovic in Sarajevo contributed to this story.