Wrestling expected to regain Olympic Games status for 2020
• IOC to give ancient sport reprieve
• Baseball/softball and squash to miss out
Wrestling was held at the ExCel Centre during London 2012 and is expected to be a part of the Games in Rio in 2020. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Owen Gibson in Buenos Aires
Following a convoluted process that has resembled a particularly energetic rendition of the hokey cokey, wrestling is expected to win back its place in the Olympic Games on Sunday.
But if the sport, which was the shock choice of the International Olympic Committee executive board to lose its spot in the 2020 Games in February, does regain its status it is unlikely to stymie criticism of a process that was supposed to freshen up the programme but will instead preserve the status quo.
And there could yet be another twist in the tail, with the new IOC president – due to be elected to replace Jacques Rogge on Tuesday – free to reconsider whether to expand the programme to include a new sport after all. That could offer a reprieve for the joint baseball and softball bid or, more likely, for squash, which has run a spirited campaign and greatly increased its appeal for spectators only to find its path blocked by the decision to give wrestling a reprieve.
After the major new additions of rugby sevens and golf to the programme for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the number of sports was capped at 26 and a new system introduced to provide an element of jeopardy for those sports felt to be underperforming and offer a chance for new ones to join the programme.
The IOC uses 39 criteria to determine a sport's suitability for inclusion, including youth appeal, universality, popularity, good governance, respect for athletes and respect for Olympic values.
A longlist of six sports, plus wrestling, was put to the executive board in St Petersburg in late May. That resulted in roller sports, karate, Chinese martial art wushu and climbing being removed from contention – and produced the final shortlist for Sunday's vote.
Many were shocked that wrestling, with its association with the ancient Games, was axed in the first place. Modern pentathlon and hockey were believed to be more at risk before the vote. But wrestling paid the price for complacency and a failure to recognise the risk until it was too late, while modern pentathlon – headed by the son of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch – led a furious rearguard action that included drastic plans to revamp the sport.
In addition to the blow to its prestige, plus the effect on its athletes, losing Olympic status can often deal a mortal blow to a sport's funding. Government funding programmes across the world tend to provide cash only to Olympic sports. The threat to its existence has shaken wrestling – still a huge grassroots sport in US high schools, Russia and elsewhere – out of its torpor and sparked a wave of change within the sport.
Nenad Lalovic, the burly Serbian appointed to run the international federation and oversee the seven-month campaign to save its Olympic status, said the sport had emerged stronger as a result. "It has been a journey through troubled waters. We found out in this crisis how strong we are and how united we can be," he said.
The rules have been changed to make the sport, which can be baffling to the uninitiated, easier to understand and more entertaining to watch. Governance has been cleaned up and moves made to introduce more gender equality, a key factor for the IOC.
"Every sport, even the oldest one like ours, must be updated and we failed to do so," said Lalovic, who took over in May. "We have quite a different sport now. It's exciting, it's not boring any more. Athletes are obliged to be aggressive."
Wrestling has been part of the modern Olympics since they began in 1896. The sport was part of the ancient Games in Olympia, Greece, as early as 708 BC.
The campaign has brought together an unlikely alliance of the US, Russia and Iran – who competed in an exhibition tournament in May to drive home the sport's universality. Another exhibition in Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Games, was designed to underline its history.
"We're optimistic, anxious and nervous. We have done everything possible to keep our sport in the Olympic programme," said Lalovic.
The final stages have not been entirely free of controversy. The IOC moved to issue a stern warning after the Japanese wrestling association broke rules about lobbying for votes in the final three weeks of the campaign.
But Lalovic said that the international federation had flagged up the problem to the IOC as soon as the letter came to light and that it would not affect the final vote.
The way the process has played out is tough on squash, a truly global sport that has been radically overhauled to make it more dynamic and television-friendly and produce a spectacle a world away from the local leisure centre.
It has emphasised the fact that it would be relatively easy to add to the programme, with only 64 athletes and a "drop in" glass court that could be placed in iconic locations in the host city – in the same as beach volleyball was parachuted into Horse Guards Parade in London.
The World Squash Federation's president, N Ramachandran, has also underlined the fact that a gold medal would be the pinnacle of achievement for its athletes, in contrast to other recently admitted sports such as golf.
Seven-times world champion Nicol David has said she would trade all her titles for one Olympic gold, while Australia's Sarah Fitzgerald, five-times winner of the world open, said her biggest regret was never being able to take part in a Games.
"Squash can honestly say we are more than ready. Our sport has been on a journey of innovation in recent years," said Fitzgerald, who will be part of the group that delivers a final presentation before the vote. "State of art all-glass courts, referee video reviews, lighting and music have all radically enhanced the spectator experience."
Softball and baseball have both failed separately in their bid to get their sport reinstated into the programme in recent years, so merged for another push. Their campaign has been hobbled by doping issues in the US and the fact that the calendar makes it unlikely that the game's biggest stars would take part.
Intriguingly, the WBSC bid team includes Antonio Castro, the son of Fidel, who ruled Cuba for almost half a century before stepping down in 2011.
Cuba has dominated Olympic baseball, winning three gold and two silver medals in the five times the sport has been played.
All three sports have engaged in one frantic final bust of lobbying of the 102 IOC members present in the Hilton hotel in Buenos Aires for the IOC session.
While wrestling is a nailed-on favourite to pin down reinstatement, the other two sports have continued to press their case in the knowledge they may well get another chance under the new president chosen on Tuesday.
• This article was amended on 8 September 2013. The original headline and picture caption wrongly referred to "Rio 2020". In fact Rio is due to host the Games in 2016. Wrestling's place in the 2020 Games is under consideration.