By Brad Brooks
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The head of wrestling's global governing body was elated on Sunday after the sport's first round showed that a flood of rule changes resulted in amped-up action that ignited a surprisingly large crowd.
"I'm elated, the hall was nearly full and the fans excited, and we did not even have a Brazilian wrestling in this first session," Nenad Lalovic, head of United World Wrestling (UWW), told Reuters. "There was much more scoring, more flurries of action and you could see it in how the fans responded."
Wrestling, which first appeared in the 708 B.C. edition of the Games, faced Olympic extinction in early 2013 when the International Olympic Committee decided to cut it from the Games after 2016.
The IOC cited the staid state of the sport, lack of diversity in its global leadership, and dull matches that were not easily understood by the casual fan.
That ignited a global backlash from wrestling enthusiasts and sparked the sport's governing body to aggressively remake itself. It introduced many rules changes that resulted in more aggressive and fast action on the mat, more scoring and greater simplicity in how points were awarded.
The global body also cut some men's categories to ensure gender equality. There are now six weight categories for both men and women competing at the Games.
The IOC reinstated wrestling in late 2013 after it evolved.
"The end result is what you saw this morning," said Lalovic, who is Serbian. "There was a lot more scoring for Greco-Roman and a lot more excitement. That's what we needed to do and we did it. I'm confident that wrestling will long remain a member of the Olympic family."
On Sunday, Japan's Shinobu Ota, 22, competing in the 59kg category, stole the show. In his first match he rallied with five points in the second period to knock off 2012 gold medal winner Hamid Soryan of Iran, winning 5-4 over the six-time world champion.
Ota then defeated world bronze medalist Almat Kebispayev of Kazakhstan 6-0 before going on to pin Azerbaijan's Rovshan Bayramov, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, in the first period of the semi-finals.
Ota meets Cuba's Ismael Borrero Molina, the current reigning world champion, in the finals later on Sunday.
(Editing by Bill Rigby)