Thursday, September 12, 2013

Adapting Without Caving in

What B2B marketers can learn from wrestling’s reinstatement to Olympics.

With Syria, 9/11 and the new Apple iPhone introduction dominating headlines this week, you may have missed another important story that’s been stirring international controversy since February. The sport of wrestling—real, unscripted, grappling by remarkably fit men and women—overcame a death sentence by the International Olympic Committee this winter and was reinstated (video). That rarely happens.

This means wrestling, a sport which dates back to the ancient Olympics over 3,000 years ago, is back on the Summer Olympic program, at least through 2024. Even if you don’t know a half-nelson from a headlock, there are some valuable lessons here for any marketer who thinks their brand and products are so entrenched in the marketplace that they will never be challenged or lose relevancy.

Big time wakeup call

In February, wrestling, which has appeared in all the modern Games dating back to Athens in 1896, was axed from the 2020 program after the IOC executive board made an assessment of the performance of all 26 sports in the 2012 London Olympics. Just like that. Cut. After 3,000 years.

Our comment at the time, “IOC Grappling with Irate Customer, Member Base” was the most widely read and circulated post in the six year history of this weekly blog. We’re big sports fans here, but we rarely cover athletics in this forum unless there’s a business angle.

Sucking it up

Rather than throw in the white towel (wrestlers rarely do), or publicly criticize the IOC for its short-sightedness, the world wrestling community sprang into action via social media, traditional media and face-to-face outreach. For once, countries as diverse as the U.S., Russia and Iran found some common ground (some would say common enemy). The global grappling community flooded the IOC website and amassed a list of petitions, signatures and endorsements on its behalf from 35 of the 50 U.S. governors and from leaders from over 100 countries. Outdoor competitions and exhibitions were held in major cities around the globe to showcase the sport to average, everyday citizens.

Rather than defend its legacy status as one of the original Olympic sports, wrestling took its demotion as a “wakeup call.” In short, it was time to modernize the sport and make it easier for the average Olympic viewer to understand, with more offense, less stalling, more female competitors and shorter time periods. All while preserving the sports’ basic integrity.

Even former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld got into the act. Rumsfeld, a former Princeton grappler, wrote an open letter to the IOC and an emotional op-ed piece for the Washington Post and other media outlets.
“Wrestling is a universal sport that anyone can participate in regardless of geography, weather, race, gender, or economic background,” Rumsfeld wrote in February. “All that is needed is a flat surface, two competitors and a referee.”

“This crisis gave us the strength to change and we finally found we can change," observed Nenad Lalovic, new head of the international wrestling federation (FILA).

“I would like to offer my congratulations to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge. “Wrestling has shown great passion and resilience in the last few months. They have taken a number of steps to modernize and improve their sport, including the addition of more women and athletes in decision-making positions; rule changes to make the sport more exciting and easy to understand; and an increase in the number of women’s competitions.”


Every once in a while a company, group or leader gets knocked from atop its long-held pedestal, accepts its new reality without making excuses, and finds ways to change and adapt to a new environment without sacrificing its core values. As a sports entertainment product, Olympic-style wrestling—real, unscripted, grappling—is not perfect and still has a lot of work to do. But the discipline, focus and resilience that so many of the sport’s leaders learned as young athletes, will help them find the path of least resistance through the new environment of TV- and mobile-friendly Olympic competition/entertainment. Don’t be afraid to change, or assume you’ll never have to. But when you do make changes, explore all viable options carefully and never stray from your core values.

More tips can be found on the FREE Resources page of our website.

Tags: Olympic wrestling, Jaques Rogge, IOC, FILA, Donald Rumsfeld, Nenad Lalovic, US Iran Russia agree

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