LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND—International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch announced Monday that, for the first time ever, professionals will be permitted to compete in wrestling in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.

IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch

"The time has come for the best wrestlers to come together and compete against one another on the world stage," Samaranch said. "This is the true Olympic spirit."

The U.S. Olympic wrestling team, which was badly beaten by Russia and the Ukraine in the '92 and '96 Games, is expected to be the biggest beneficiary of the rule change. Already, a number of high-profile U.S. pros have filed requests with the USOC to compete in Sydney, including Vader, Disco Inferno, Golddust and The Undertaker.

WWF star Jerry "The King" Lawler, who plans to compete in Sydney in the Greco-Roman 286-pound class, is eager to face reigning Olympic champion Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, who took the gold medal in Atlanta in 1996.

"Mr. Karelin, I have heard you talk long and loud about your strength, your stamina and your many so-called pins," said a visibly angry Lawler, his face still damp with perspiration following a match against Stone Cold Steve Austin. "But when you get in my ring, you are dealing with the King. Get ready to come face-to-face with real wrestling, Mr. Karelin. Real, professional, American wrestling. It's going to be lights-out for you, pal, in Sydney." Lawler added that, upon victory, he will shave Karelin bald.

Former Undertaker manager Paul Bearer, now managing Kane, told reporters: "This is a very exciting development for the Federaaaaaa-tion, and I know that not only Kane, but all wrestlers who qualify for the Games, will be honored to represent the U.S. in Syyyyyyd-ney."

Added Bearer: "Ohhhhhhhhhh, yeeeeeesssssss!"

Despite the excitement among U.S. pros, many observers are critical of the IOC decision, contending that it will result in unfair, severely lopsided victories for Team USA, similar to those of the basketball "Dream Team" in the last two Summer Olympics.

"It is unlikely that any foreign wrestler, professional or amateur, will be able to match the top-rope, turnbuckle-smashing, pile-driving force of the WWF's army of pain," said sports columnist Mitch Albom of The Detroit Free Press. "We're talking Cactus Jack, Dude Love, The Headbangers and the Legion of Doom. No other nation on earth, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, which has the Iron Sheik and Farrooq, can match that."

IOC officials have still not announced whether supernaturally powered wrestler The Undertaker will be permitted to use his Tombstone Piledriver finishing move in international competition.