(Reuters) - As a former chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, Jim Scherr knows better than most the daunting challenge facing wrestling as the sport tries to avoid being tossed from the Games.
Earlier this month the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made a surprise recommendation to drop the sport from the 2020 Summer Games, leaving wrestling to fight with seven other disciplines for one spot when the board meets in May.
"It is a major challenge for the sport, by no means is there any easy victory here," Scherr said during a conference call on Thursday to outline wrestling's plans to save the sport. "But I think from what I've heard from people connected to the IOC that there is a path here for wrestling, that it can remain on the program.
"Wrestling has to work hard to do so and we're optimistic with the leadership that has been collected on a worldwide level that we're up the task and we'll get that job done."
The IOC's decision has been greeted with outrage across the wrestling community, triggering protests and petitions.
Russia's Sagid Murtazaliev, heavyweight freestyle champion at the 2000 Sydney Games, and Bulgarian wrestling federation president Valentin Yordanov, a winner at the 1996 Atlanta Games, returned their Olympic gold medals to the IOC in protest while the Japan Wrestling Federation launched an online petition.
The threat of having wrestling dropped from the Games has also created an unlikely alliance as Iran and the United States put aside nuclear issues and political differences to join forces to save the sport's Olympic status.
"They (Iranians) do feel the exact same as we do, they could just not believe that would be the decision with wrestling being one of the original sports in the Olympics." said American freestyle Olympian Coleman Scott. "They are as passionate about the sport as we are.
"We have to bond in the whole wrestling community to get this back into the Games."
With only seven months to convince IOC members to remove wrestling from the chopping block, wrestling officials are marshalling their forces.
Contested in the first modern Olympics in 1896 and part of the ancient Games in Olympia, wrestling joins baseball and softball, making a joint bid, martial arts karate and wushu, rollersports, wakeboarding and squash as candidate sports battling for one vacant spot in a revamped program.
The IOC executive board will meet in St. Petersburg in May to determine which of them will be put to the vote in September at the IOC session in Buenos Aires.
International wrestling's governing body FILA conceded that the organization had been caught sleeping and now must quickly address several issues if the sport is to survive.
Scherr, a former Olympic wrestler and a newly appointed member of the FILA bureau, said the governing body has not done a good enough job integrating itself into the worldwide Olympic movement.
If wrestling is to remain on the Olympic program, Scherr believes the rules need to be simplified and the presentation of the sport must be improved, creating a better media model and sponsorship platform.
"Everyone connected with the international wrestling movement will agree that in hindsight they could have done much more," said Scherr, who will also spearhead USA Wrestling efforts as a key member of the recently formed Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling. "President (Nenad) Milovic will be the first one to say FILA could have done a better job, we will now do a better job.
"There is a lot of work to do. FILA and leaders in the United States need to understand the IOC's process and why they took this decision convince of the value of wrestling and why it should remain on the program."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)