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World Sailing scraps bid for extra sailing medal at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

World Sailing scraps bid for extra sailing medal at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

World Sailing will now not be bidding for an additional Olympic sailing medal for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. 

According to the minutes of the December meeting of the governing body’s executive board headed by newly appointed president, Kim Anderson, an earlier plan to pitch the International Olympic Committee for an additional eleventh medal has been reversed.

The decision came after Anderson recently travelled to Lausanne, Switzerland to meet with IOC President Thomas Bach and other key IOC personnel. Reporting back to the World sailing board Anderson said “It had been noted that sailing had an above average athlete quota (the average being around 200)”. 

Anderson also told his fellow-board members that just four possible extra medals were available among the 28 Olympic sports taking part in Tokyo 2020. Furthermore, the IOC had made it clear that an extra eleventh sailing medal would have to come from within the existing athlete quota. Given the need for gender equality, that would mean the medal would need to be a women’s event.

After discussion, the board decided that sailing had a limited chance of success in applying for an additional medal and that athlete quotas would be based around the current 10 sailing disciplines and should “support maintaining or increasing universality and gender equality.”

An application will, nevertheless, be made to have an additional sailing ‘showcase’ event at Tokyo 2020.

The board called for submissions on the showcase event from the current sailing disciplines (49er, 49erfx, 470 men, 470 women, Laser men, Laser Radial women, Finn heavyweight men, Nacra 17 mixed, RS:X windsurfer men, RS:X windsurfer women). 

The classes were also asked to submit proposals on changes to their racing formats. The deadline for these submissions was January 10 although the decision around racing formats would not be a rushed one. 

Moving forward, the clear priority for the World Sailing Board - which as well as Anderson and World Sailing CEO, Andy Hunt, includes Brazilian five-time Olympic medallist Torben Grael and French 49er Olympian and chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Yann Rocherieux – is working to improve “sports presentation”.

All this comes after the existing slate of 10 Olympic Classes was locked in for Tokyo 2020 at the 2016 World Sailing Conference by former president Carlo Croce just days before he was ousted from power in favour of Anderson.

It seems the IOC is keeping the pressure on sailing to bring in more youths to the sport and to widen its appeal to a broader sporting audience. With no changes to the Olympic Classes before Tokyo, the spotlight now falls on the racing format each class believes best represents it. 

The 49er, 49erfx and the Nacra 17 are ahead of the game here having had their proposals for the medal race days already approved. 

Under the new format, the current single 20 to 30-minute medal race will be replaced by multiple shorter races around a bounded racecourse. The 49er and 49erfx fleets will sail their familiar windward/leeward course while the newly-foiling Nacra 17 catamarans will race around an America’s Cup-style course (reaching start, windward/leeward, reach to the finish). 

Read our interview with 49er, 49erfx and Nacra 17 class president Marcus Spillane here

Spillane’s classes have grabbed the bull by the horns with their new racing format but will still be taking feedback from their sailors as the format is tested live at regattas. 

Not everyone agrees that changing the format is the right way to give sailing a broader appeal to the sporting public. 

When Sail Racing Magazine spoke to Athletes’ Commission member and double Olympic medallist, Jo Aleh, at last year’s World Sailing conference in Barcelona, she told us that changing formats to attract viewers could make things unfair for the competitors and ultimately be counterproductive. 

“The question should be how do we best present sailing as the great sport it is - rather than, how do we change the format?” Aleh said. “It’s about presenting sailing in a way that engages people. There are a whole lot of sports that don't make much sense to people who are new to them – but they still watch them.”

Aleh believes it would be a mistake to move to any kind of single race winner-take-all format in the hope that more people will tune in. She also disagrees with the idea that shortening a sailing race makes it any more exciting or appealing.

“I think of sports like golf or cycling at the Tour de France,” she said. “People watch these sports all day and for days at a time. It’s not because it’s non-stop excitement but because they are engaged with the game that is being played. Hopefully we can learn from those other sports and figure out what sailing’s unique selling point is and how to capitalise on it.”

Jo Aleh and her crew Polly Powrie on their way to silver in the 470 at Rio 2016

Nevertheless, Aleh said the most Olympic campaigners understood that the need to broaden sailing’s commercial appeal would ultimately mean accepting some form of grandstand racing closer to shore. 

“There's an atmosphere which you don't get with sailing further out,” she said. “When you get to experience it you really appreciate it. It’s often assumed that sailors only want to race miles out, so it's good to be clear that we're open to it.”
Aleh stressed the need to have fair racing throughout the Olympic regatta, including the final day. 

“Maybe you don't just have one medal race, you have three,” she said. “You have to find a way to reward consistency. That way the top sailors will always rise to the top eventually. If you condense it too much, there are just too many random variables to make it fair.”

While the debate over changes to the racing format will likely rumble on for quite a while yet, the question of what World Sailing will propose to the IOC for a showcase event for Tokyo will hopefully be resolved more quickly.

At this point it is unclear what might be under discussion. Might it be time to open the door to the foiling kiteboard racers? Or perhaps a singlehanded offshore race in the foil-enabled Bénéteau Figaro 3 would be just the ticket? Less likely given the numbers involved, but surely a Wilson Race team racing competition would showcase dinghy racing pretty well?

For now, we can only speculate and wait for more information to be forthcoming, hopefully soon after the World Sailing board meets in Cape Town, South Africa at the end of February.  

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