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US, Cuba wrestling pan Olympic move to drop sport

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2000 file photo, Rulon Gardner, right, of the United States, holds the arm of Alexander Karelin of Russia during the final bout in the 130 kg class of Greco-Roman wrestling event at the Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Gardner's epic upset of Russian wrestling great Alexander Karelin in 2000 remains one of the most compelling moments of the modern Olympics. Starting in 2020, youngsters looking to Gardner and Karelin for inspiration won't have a chance to excel on the sport's biggest stage. Gardner and nearly everyone else associated with the sport in the U.S. were jolted Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 when International Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Summer Games. (AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara, File )

HAVANA (AP) — The U.S. and Cuba have seen eye-to-eye on precious little for the last half century, but their wrestling federations have found common ground on at least one thing: Dropping the sport from the 2020 Olympics is a bad idea.

At a tournament in Havana on Friday, coaches and athletes from both nations told The Associated Press that they are in shock and disbelief over the decision by the International Olympics Committee's executive board.

"It was kind of crazy to hear and think about how many hours people have put into that dream of winning an Olympic title," said Frank Perrelli, a 23-year-old New Jersey native who was competing in the 55-kilo weight class. "And all those hours can be taken away with just a couple of votes from people who probably never wrestled in their life and have no idea what it's about."

"I think it's criminal," added Jim Humphrey, a team USA coach from Indianapolis, Indiana.

Wrestling has been a mainstay of the Olympics since the first modern Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896, but the IOC announced Tuesday that it was eliminating freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling from its list of "core" sports, making way for another to be added in 2020. A spokesman called it an effort to renew and renovate the program.

The news didn't go over well in Havana, where six American wrestlers have been training along with athletes from Cuba, Europe and Latin America since Feb. 7 in preparation for the tournament.

"It's a very tough blow," said Cuban 60-kilo competitor Alejandro Vades, 24. "My goal is to win the title in 2016, but what happens after that? ... I have hope that our sport will receive good support and stay on the program."

Wrestling's Olympic demise is not yet completely sealed, as the executive board's decision must still be confirmed at an IOC general assembly in September.

On Thursday, USA Wrestling announced it had formed a group headed by former world champion Bill Scherr to fight the decision in tandem with other federations from around the world.

Humphrey expressed optimism that the outcry will be enough to save the sport, noting that almost 200 countries have freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling and 71 nations were represented at last summer's London Olympics, where athletes had to qualify to compete.

"Iran, Cuba, Russia, Azerbaijan, that's their national sport. That's the most important thing in their whole culture," Humphrey said.

"It's unbelievable," he added. "I don't think it's going to happen."

The Havana tournament kicked off Friday and runs through Saturday.

While the idea of U.S. athletes training and competing in Cuba might seem strange due to the 51-year-old economic embargo that bans most American travel to the island, USA Wrestling has attended the Cuba tournament every year since at least the 1980s, Humphrey said.

Similar exchanges involving baseball and other sports, plus dance, music and academic programs, are licensed by the U.S. government and have been on the rise in recent years.

Humphrey said such events can help build bridges between political rivals.

"The wrestling team was the first to go into the Soviet Union back in the early '70s," Humphrey said. "And it just opens your eyes that when you only get one side of a story, you don't understand that these people are just the same as we are."

"We're wrestlers before we're anything else probably," he said.

Past delegations have been even bigger than the six athletes and handful of coaches who made the Cuba trip in 2013. Due to a scheduling conflict, the bulk of the squad traveled to Azerbaijan and Iran for another competition.

The U.S. and Cuban wrestlers haven't been able to communicate much due to language difficulties, but Perrelli said they've been working out together twice a day for a week and a half.

"We're kind of getting to know them without talking, just through body language and wrestling and handshakes and things like that," he said. "It's pretty cool getting to know these guys."


Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.


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