Updated at: 09/05/2013 3:05 PM
By STEPHEN WILSON
(AP) BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Nenad Lalovic remembers the phone call from a friend seven months ago: Wrestling was being dropped from the Olympics.
"I said, `What are you talking about?’" Lalovic recalled. "I thought it was a joke."
It wasn’t. The IOC executive board in February recommended removing wrestling from the 2020 Olympics, a hammer blow that the sport’s leaders never saw coming.
Now, Lalovic is in Buenos Aires as president of a new-look FILA, wrestling’s governing body, and leading its final push to save its Olympic status, culminating a frantic six-month campaign that has reshaped the sport.
"That was the best shock therapy," Lalovic said. "When you fall into such a crisis, you either die or you recover. We recovered."
The International Olympic Committee will vote Sunday on including one additional sport to the program of the 2020 and 2024 Games. Wrestling is up against squash and a combined baseball-softball bid.
Barring a major surprise, wrestling looks set to keep its Olympic place.
"What I hear makes me optimistic," Lalovic said, "but a vote is a vote and we have to wait."
In the meantime, the burly, chain-smoking Serb has been working the lobby of the IOC hotel, continuing to make wrestling’s case. Leaders of the baseball-softball and squash federations are fighting to keep in the hunt.
"We’re still trying to get our message across," said Don Porter, co-president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation. "We know we have an uphill battle but we are doing everything we can to convince the members that baseball-softball will be positive for the Olympic program. I think there are still a lot of members who are undecided."
Squash federation chief N. Ramachandran believes the final presentations before the vote will be crucial.
"We have done our best ... and hope for the best," he said.
After the IOC’s stunning decision in February, Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president and was replaced by Lalovic. The Serb said it became clear that FILA had failed to modernize the sport and had fallen out of touch with the IOC.
"I don’t blame the IOC," Lalovic said. "The guilt is only ours. We lost too many years. But this crisis gave us a fantastic possibility to do so much in such a short time.
"We all decided to fight, but how to fight? You have to win a battle. You don’t know who are your allies, what are your weapons, and how many men you have. We found out in a few weeks and came up with a strategy."
FILA revamped its structure, giving women and athletes a role in decision making. It added two weight classes for women. It adopted rule changes to make the sport easier to understand and more fun to watch, and reward more aggressive wrestling.
Meanwhile, powerful countries and unlikely political allies like the United States, Iran and Russia threw their weight behind the campaign.
Squash is trying for a third time to make the Olympic program. Women’s softball and men’s baseball were dropped by the IOC from the program following the 2008 Beijing Games. After failing in separate bids for reinstatement, they merged into a single federation this time to improve their chances.
If wrestling wins Sunday’s vote, it will mean no new sport is added to the program, defeating the original purpose of the process.
"We have to present a new wrestling, like a new sport, because the IOC wants a new sport," Lalovic said. "That’s what we are giving to them _ a completely new wrestling."
Lalovic has some sympathy for the two other contenders, whose chances took a huge blow when wrestling made the shortlist from eight sports in May. But Lalovic said wrestling has more at stake than the others, contending that losing a spot in the Olympics is worse than failing to win one.
"We would be much more disappointed to go out from the games than them not succeeding to enter because we are in, they’re not," he said. "For us it’s much more difficult not to succeed, because if we don’t succeed we are in big, big trouble."
Whatever happens on Sunday, Lalovic said, the "revolution" in wrestling is far from over.
"We had to make a new product and we made it," he said. "To sell a product you need to have something interesting. I think we succeeded in doing the maximum that can be done in six months. But we didn’t finish the job. We have to do many things. This is just the beginning."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)