Olympic sailing is in a state of flux after the International Olympic Committee demanded sailing’s international federation, World Sailing, to carry out an overhaul of the Olympic classes before the Tokyo 2020 Games.
The slate of 10 events across seven classes chosen by World Sailing in 2011 was to be used for both the Rio 2016 and at Tokyo 2020 Games, but the IOC – which accounts for over 50 per cent of World Sailing’s funding – weren’t happy with the mix and demanded changes.
The IOC’s concerns revolve around sailing’s appeal – or lack of it - to the youth demographic, a need for better gender equality and a requirement to make the on the water action more exciting and broadcast TV friendly.
The IOC edict has sent sailing’s governing body into a tizzy and left the eight Olympic classes in limbo as they – some more nervously than others – make their case to remain part of the five ring circus.
World Sailing will make its recommendations to IOC after its World Conference in Barcelona this November and the IOC are expected to announce the Tokyo 2020 events and classes sometime after February 2017.
That means at least six months of uncertainty for sailors training and fundraising for their Tokyo Olympic Games campaigns while they wait to find out which events make the cut.
Attempting to predict the outcomes of the arcane decision making process at World Sailing conferences is a futile exercise. Horse trading and political maneuvering between delegates is rife and has resulted in some baffling decisions being handed down in recent years.
At the 2012 conference in Dublin, World Sailing delegates voted to oust windsurfing from the 2016 Olympic line-up to be replaced by kitesurfing. This led to an embarrassing reversal just months later after several country representatives confessed to having been ‘confused’ by what they were asked to vote on, with one admitting to voting for kitesurfing ‘by mistake’.
Other surprise outcomes include the elimination of the Tornado catamaran from London 2012 only to re-introduce another multihull – the Nacra 17 – in the next Olympic cycle; and the voting out of women’s match racing after just one appearance at the London Games.
World Sailing was accused of being asleep at the tiller in 2015 when it allowed the International Paralympic Committee to exclude sailing from the Paralympic Games after 2016 for “failing to meet minimum criteria for worldwide reach”.
Some classes are understandably quaking in their neoprene boots at the possibility of losing their Olympic status. Meanwhile, others circle each other like match racers, angling for an opportunity to get their foot in the Olympic door.
Speed and aesthetics count for a lot with the IOC, so the crews of the multicoloured, high-performance 49er and 49erFX classes can probably rest easy in their trapeze harnesses for this quadrennial at least.
Likewise, the simplicity and worldwide reach of the Laser and Laser Radial singlehanded dinghies and the RS:X windsurfer classes should put them well out of harm’s way too.
Potentially less secure is the 470 dinghy. Despite holding huge appeal with sailing purists, it apparently leaves non-sailing audiences baffled. Even more at risk is the men’s heavyweight Finn dinghy – an Olympic class since 1952 - which scores poorly on the IOC’s gender equality metric.
Contrastingly, Kitesurfing ticks so many boxes in the IOC 2020 Agenda document that it must surely now get its Olympic chance in Tokyo.
World Sailing are also rumoured to be considering the introduction a foiling class – an obvious move from an excitement standpoint but surely challenging to the racing schedule in light winds or big wave conditions?
There’s also talk of retrofitting the Nacra 17 mixed multihull to make it fully foiling, however some believe a smarter route might be to bite the bullet and go straight to a purpose-designed full foiler.
World Sailing president, Carlo Croce, in an address to the members of the World Sailing Council earlier this year, warned of the changing Olympic landscape and sailing’s need to adapt to it.
“… we all need to be mindful of the IOC's Agenda 2020 strategy and its appetite to introduce more modern, youthful sports and events to the Games,” he said. “We are likely to see five new events at the 2020 Tokyo Games including some of the newer 'activity' sports.
“So - we are in a changing Olympic world and we need to be able to react to this.”
Croce – who is up for presidential re-election this year - describes himself as “an Olympic sailor who fell in love with offshore sailing”. He recently floated the idea of a satellite-tracked, onboard media-enabled, Olympic offshore race with a mixed-sex, two-person crew.
That’s a novel idea but one it’s hard to see appealing to the IOC’s adrenalin-junkie youth demographic or being especially attractive to the Olympic Broadcast Service. If a non-sailing audience gets confused or bored by inshore fleet racing, it’s hard to imagine an offshore distance race having them on the edge of their sofas.
Croce is facing a presidential challenge from octogenarian former ISAF president, Paul Henderson, who says he is running again because he fears Croce’s leadership may allow two Kitesurfing events entry to the Olympics by excluding the Finn and combining the 470 male and female fleets into one.
Henderson, who served as ISAF president from 1994 – 2004, is a sailing purist and no fan of windsurfing – he famously described windsurfers as ‘air rowers’ – and believes Kitesurfing should be an element of the Surfing discipline which the IOC confirmed as one of five sports being introduced at Tokyo 2020.
Whether he is right on that and whether replacing the 71-year-old Croce with the 82-year-old Henderson is the right move for a sport making itself up to appear youthful and dynamic to the IOC, both remain unanswered questions.
Everything, about the sailing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is potentially open to change, it seems – classes, format, courses.
Carlo Croce again:
“It is … vital that the strategic direction of World Sailing is closely aligned with the IOC’s Agenda 2020 and we are open and receptive to the idea of new, innovative, youth orientated Sailing events in the Olympic Games.
“Specifically, I want to ensure that the Offshore World Championships can act as
a showcase for a future endurance event for Sailing in the Olympic Games.”
Just how far World sailing is prepared to bastardise the Olympic regatta format to appease its paymasters at the IOC and its holy grail broadcast TV audience is not yet clear.
The introduction of a 10-boat, double-points medal race to try to instigate a climax to Olympic regattas proved unpopular with the sailors - particularly those whose medal hopes were dashed in unpredictably shifty winds on courses set close to shore for the benefit of ticket paying spectators.
This summer sailing made a big splash Olympic Games in Rio, taking full advantage of the opportunity to showcase itself at the heart of the Olympic venue, rather than, as is often the case, hidden away at a coastal venue far from the gaze of the mainstream media.
Not everyone who tuned in will have understood what they were watching but anyone with a soul could appreciate the beauty of the close up aerial shots and the intensity of the competition as some of the world’s best sailors battled it out for Olympic glory.
Even after the Laser Radial medal race was cancelled for too much wind the Laser Radial fleet tearing around in 30 knots made for some spectacular footage.
Sailing is a highly nuanced sport that requires innate skill, both tactical and strategic thinking and supreme athletic ability to perform at the highest level. As such greatly deserves to continue as an Olympic discipline, but for certain, appeasing the IOC will require changes to be made. What is less certain is how wide ranging those changes need to be and whether our sport’s governing body has a tight enough grip on the situation to decide.
Hopefully World Sailing’s decision making process will be consultative, incorporating the views of all interested parties and transparent rather than the closed door, smokey room negotiations we have seen previously.
In the meantime, sailing’s Olympic classes and campaigners face bumpy seas for the foreseeable future while this tricky situation is resolved.