How to prevent sailing being dropped from the Olympics

ISAF's Olympic Commisssion make their far reaching recommendations

Friday May 21st 2010, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

ISAF’s Olympic Commission have completed their comprehensive 64 page report for the Executive Committee making recommendations for what Olympic sailing must do to put its house in order. Alarmingly, they warn, the consequence of not implementing this is not simply losing another sailing ‘event’ for 2016, but the prospect of sailing being dropped from the Olympic Games in its entirety.

This is no idle threat. At present there are 28 Olympic disciplines and, according to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, this is not going to increase. Instead if up-and-coming sports are to be included in the Games it will be at the expense of others. This was seen recently when baseball and softball were dropped from the 2016 Games, in favour of golf and rugby. An Olympic Games without sailing – hard to comprend? For some reason we take it for granted that sailing doesn’t feature in the Commonwealth Games (although this is something ISAF would like to rectify).

To determine the sports to be included, the International Olympic Committee have introduced a formula based on 33 criteria and on some tenuous ones such as ‘history’ sailing scores well, but in many it decidedly falls short.

As the ISAF Olympic Commission report states: “In 2002 the International Olympic Committee noted that, when compared with other summer Olympic sports, sailing had a high number of athletes and events in comparison to its broadcast revenues and spectator appeal.” But the hard data shows a more ominous picture - the televising of sailing in Beijing in 2008 was the fifth most expensive of all 28 of the Olympic disciplines, but at the same time the TV coverage, according to IOC criteria, proved to be the least popular (ie even lower than fencing and archery) in the last two Olympiads. Sailing also accounted for a pitiful 0.3% of ticket sales to the Games in Athens and just 0.1% in Beijing. TV coverage, the report notes, is vital as it has a strong bearing on the amount of money ISAF receives from the IOC.

Sailing, due to it requiring relatively expensive hardware compared to other Olympic sports, also lacks what the report calls ‘universality’ (ie the number of countries that participate). In 2008 sailing had 128 Member National Authorities signed up to ISAF, the sixth worst of the 28 Olympic sports, compared to the leaders - athletics obviously, and less obviously volleyball and basketball, all at around 200 member nations.

The report further warns that while sailing at present has ‘friends in the IOC’ including its President and former Olympic sailor Jacques Rogge, this is less likely to be case as the committee rotates and Rogge’s tenure comes to an end post 2012. It is most likely the IOC’s next President won’t be European.

Needless to say – if sailing were dropped from the Olympic Games it would be a disaster for ISAF, deriving as it doesn most of its income from the IOC (65% in 2004). Worse, it would be a devasting blow for the growth of sailing as a sport globally - the report estimates the IOC’s contribution to our sport is worth around 100 million Euros annually – and that figure does not include the added benefits to the marine industry supporting it. “Governments, National Olympic Committees and sponsors financially support many MNAs and sailors because, and only because, our sport is in the Olympic Games. The Commission estimates this support to be around half a billion Euros every four years,” states the report.

So the ISAF Olympic Commission, comprising Chairman Phil Jones; Ben Barger, Chair of the Athletes Commission; Chris Atkins, Chairman of the Events Committee and Council Member; Cory Sertl, Youth Champs SC and Council Member; Georg Fundak, Chair of Coaches Commission; Scott Perry, Chair of Regional Games Committee and Dick Batt, Chair of the Equipment Committee, have made a long long list of recommendations.

But what is worrying is that while reading the report, the Commission’s recommendations seem sensible and would most probably put sailing on the right track to fulfill the IOC’s criteria, the report and its contents are presently in draft form and still have to go through numerous consultation processes. They will then be presented at the ISAF Mid-year Meeting and then possibly rubber stamped at the General Meeting in the autumn and along the line this there is every chance for it to hit the normal bureaucratic brick wall thanks to ISAF’s democracy-at-its-very-worst decision making process.

The recommendations provided by the Commission focus on five criteria and here we directly quote from the report:

1) Increasing universality
To ensure sailing is widely practiced globally by people of all ages and abilities and of both genders, on inexpensive equipment available around the world. There are clear and accessible pathways for young people from local to regional, international and Olympic competition and our sport is a core part of all major Regional Games

2) Expanding qualification opportunity.
Ensuring the qualification system provides opportunities for the best sailors from each nation to participate at the Olympic Games and provides continental representation. Local competitions ensure that the system is as widely accessible as possible at reasonable cost to participants

3) Building popularity
Through easy to understand events, good live presentation, high quality production for television and on-line distribution, assisted by the application of the latest tracking and other technology, and broad coverage in other media, Olympic sailing is an attractive, quality sports entertainment property to the benefit of all stakeholders

4) Improving event structure
The structure of events clearly identifies champions and provides cost effective pathways for athletes and MNAs to prepare for the Olympic Games, while encouraging the global spread of the sport through local opportunities to compete and providing our best athletes with a platform to generate income through commercial support

5) Enhancing the Olympic Games
The pinnacle event every four years, the Olympic Games demonstrates the diversity and skills of the leading young sailors from each nation. No athlete has an equipment advantage. We showcase our sport in a format that provides entertaining and enjoyable coverage to the large live and remote audience that is attracted through previous exposure to our sport

So how to do this?

In line with the IOC requirement, a key to increasing ‘univerality’ is not simply to get more nations to compete at the Olympic Games. Rather more nations must have the ‘chance’ to qualify.

Attempts to increase global participation is already underway with the ISAF Connect to Sailing program. This joint venture between member national authorities and national governing bodies in sport and the marine industry, attempts to develop sailing at a grass roots level, including training. As a supplement to this ISAF are developing their ‘emerging nations program’ where first world countries with well developed sailing teams are helping those which haven’t –Yachting Australia for example have been running this scheme as part of the build-up to the ISAF World Sailing Games in Perth in 2011. There they have been coaching Laser sailors from Sri Lanka and RS:X sailors from Pakistan, Chinese Taipei and Columbia.

There is the similar Athlete Participation Programme at the Volvo Youth Sailing ISAF World Championship to help bring new sailing nations on board.

In countries where sailing is just getting going, the Commission recommends setting up Member National Authorities with the target of increasing the number of MNAs to 140 by 2012 and 150 by 2016. Nonetheless this still remains still by the IOC’s standards where 190 is considered the benchmark. Participation in sailing – not surprisingly – is particularly poor in Africa, where there are MNAs in only 15 of the IOC’s 53 nations, but it is also low in Asia and the Americas (presumably central and south).

At present there are numerous regional games around the world, including some obscure ones like the Pan Armenian Games, but also more major ones - the Pan American Games and the Asian Games are the best known, but the World Military Games and the Universiade Games have more than twice the number of nations competing (more than 100). While sailing takes place in around two thirds of these regional games, the Commission recommends ISAF get on in encouraging sailing to feature in them all. One of the sensible recommendations is that the classes used in these be those that are also included in the Olympic Games (ie so Laser and RS:X in particular).

The Sailing World Cup series of Olympic class events also has a strong European bias, the report notes, with four of the seven events stages there. But spreading this more evenly around the world would increase the costs of Olympic campaigns. The Commission states that the aim of the Sailing World Cup should ultimately be to have two events in Europe, with one event each in North and South America, an Asian event introduced in 2013 and a second in 2017, with a maximum of eight events globally. To prevent the ridiculous conflict between the scoring in the Sailing World Cup series and ISAF’s ranking for each of the Olympic classes, consideration is being given to not scoring the SWC but instead having an annual final, open only to the 20 top sailors in each class.

As ever there is a drive to reduce the cost of the ‘equipment’ used in the Games in order to make it more accessible for emerging nations - so more strict ones designs and the prospect of more supplied equipment, argues the Commission. If their findings are adopted then the days of the Finn and Star are numbered unless they go fully one design, and the Commission also gives the thumbs down to keelboats.

The report also favours changing the OIlympic equipment less often, for equipment to be ‘locked in’ for a fixed period, and with much more advance warning of changes (at least six years and ideally 10 – so equipment for Rio for example should be being decided now…). This would allow MNAs to invest in new boats knowing that they will be in the Games for ‘x’ many years hence.

Another cost cutting measure, but also a boost to ‘universality’, is the Commission’s recommendation to introduce more ways for Olympic qualification to take place at a regional level, thereby cutting down travel expenses. So from the present system of 75% of country qualification taking place at the ISAF Sailing World Championship a year out from the Games and the remaining 25% at the subsequent World Championship, the new system proposed would see 50% of places awarded at a ISAF Sailing World Championship two years out from the Games and the other 50% at new ‘ISAF Continental Qualification Events’ to be set up on each of the five ISAF Continents in year three of the Olympic cycle. Obviously too late for 2012, this will be introduced for 2016.

Oddly, given all that has been said on the desire for ‘universality’ and the shortage of Olympic berths with 10 classes, there was still some debate in the Commission about whether or not to stick with the one boat per nation format. The reason this came up was , because the IOC specifies that the best athletes should be represented and clearly at present this is more true at World Championships where there is no one boat/nation limitation.

There is also a plan to equal up male and female participation by 2016 Games (rather than 37.6% women and 62.4% men as it is at present). While open classes (where both men and women can participate in the same boat eg the Tornado) traditionally don’t work, there is the prospect of a compulsory mixed class, however the IOC have indicated in the past that they don’t favour this, so clarification will be sought from them.

In terms of building popularity the Commission recommends improvement in the television and on-line coverage to turn sailing into a ‘sports entertainment property’. (Good luck.) Interestingly while sailing was down the pan on TV at the last two Olympics, it was relatively strong on the internet, on the ISAF site at least. Thankfully the Commission points out that part of the equation is to ensure that the venue is decided with some wisdom (ie unlike Qingdao) with reliable wind, clean water, space for the race courses and ideally a stretch of water close to shore where the medal races can be held.

The Commission suggests that a better event village needs to be set up at all major events and this is used to promote Olympic sailing. They also want to introduce national branding (as used at the Games) at Sailing World Cup events, World Championships and other major events.

According to the report there is some discussion over whether the popularity of sailing on TV will be improved by spending more on the coverage or changing the race format, towards, for example, races of shorter duration. The report recommends that improvements need to be made to better identify ‘winners’ at events.

Changing the race format and scoring is also on the cards in order to reduce the number of days of sailing from 13 days to nine/ten as this will have a major impact on the cost of staging the event and, particularly, its television coverage.

There also needs to be more attention paid to reducing conflicts in the sailing calendar (although one suspects they are only referring to Olympic sailing at this point) and of course solving the old problem of how to make the ISAF rankings more meaningful, to genuinely reflect the present standings and who is best within each ‘event’. The suggestion is that the rankings be compiled from less events.

The report also suggests that World Championships for Olympics should not take place annually as the number of World Championships at present is confusing. In women’s match racing for example there is the ISAF Women’s World Match Racing Championship and there is also the ISAF World Sailing Championship. The recommendation is to have an ISAF Sailing World Cup champion annually, a World champion biennially, and an Olympic champion every four years.

Anyway these are the main points. There follows our comment on the report and the view of the Olympic Commission Chairman and head of Yachting Australia, Phil Jones.

Read the full report here

more on the IOC's Olympic evaluation procedure here

What’s your view on the report? Comment below

Latest Comments

  • 696616 21/05/2010 - 14:51

    see The UCI have just annouced that there will be only 1 place per country in the sprint competitions for the cycling - surely this is going against "the IOC specifies that the best athletes should be represented and clearly at present this is more true at World Championships where there is no one boat/nation limitation."
  • 696616 21/05/2010 - 14:47

    I sa wa similiar pattern while working in mountain biking, where they had world championships, world cups etc (similiar to skiing). The public could not understand if you won a world cup you wer enot worl champion. My recommendation woudl be to have world championships ever odd year, Continental champs ever even, Olympics ever 4 and then commonwealth games etc 2 following the olympics. At Olympics all kit shoudl be supplied (legacy to host or donation to poorer countries) and decorated in national colours. Qualification shoudl be through regional allocation and world championship placing. World cup should be renamed in to world series or world sailing league.
  • magnuswheatley 21/05/2010 - 13:55

    Amazing how I was described as an "odd-ball", "fruitcase" and "idiot" when I first warned that sailing will be out of the Games within a generation. Now ISAF has woken up and methinks it's all a bit too late....
  • JamesDavies 21/05/2010 - 11:59

    The TV coverage definitely needs to be improved. It seems with the BBC that because sailing is a niche sport they'll give it coverage but the bare minimum so when you do get to see races there is not time for a commentator to explain the current standings and you only get highlights of the race so it's hard to follow what's going on even as a sailor. An extra two minutes before the race for someone to explain the course and how it works would go a long way to holding the interest of non-sailors who in this day and age if they don't understand hit the red button and choose another sport!
  • schooner 21/05/2010 - 11:57

    If the report is big enough perhaps it will hurt when those who voted in self interest rather than sport interest are hit with it. Maybe then the risk to the sport will be recognised by those more concerned with the risk to themselves.
  • andyn 21/05/2010 - 10:47

    I think the best thing to do is to opt for women's match racing in favour of young, exciting skiff sailing. The number of countries that really excel in womens match racing is HUGE and the yachts are really cheap - really anyone can afford them.
  • Chr1s 21/05/2010 - 09:37

    It would be a pity to lose sailing from the Olympics. Unlike some sports, where the Olympics is a bit of a sideline compared to other competitions - soccer, tennis and golf come to mind - it is the pinnacle of a major branch of our sport.
  • tla_epi 21/05/2010 - 09:17

    On expanding presence in regional games - Laser & RSX I can understand, but why would the 470 be a good idea?? A boat which most of the big sailing nations already have a significant technical advantage... On TV - changes to the format are one part, but being able to tell boats apart at distance (the little country flags aren't really adequate) is a big failing point at the moment. Lots of identical white boats don't make it easy to follow and while Virtual Spectator is an excellent tool you miss a lot of the action by spending extended periods looking at it. The other part is the standard of the commentary. The last Olympics was (Ben Ainslie's guest spot excepted) pretty poor (from a UK perspective). There seems to be a happy medium that sailing seems unable to find here - either you get experienced sailors who aren't too good on the microphone, or you get professional(?) commentators who don't have the in depth knowledge of the racing. Just been re-watching the mostly excellent coverage of the Cascais Medcup - while Martin Tasker has done sterling work as a presenter for various big events there are a lot of long pauses in his commentary. It was interesting when they cut to Dobbs Davis, watching the GP42s, that his delivery was much more urgent and exciting. Back on the TP52 course the commentators just talk over the moment when Origin's bow goes down in a huge gust that takes them out to the big lead in the race they won. If commentators can't even spot the significant parts of the race and present them in a dramatic style then how on earth can we ever exepect non sailors to switch on to the sport....

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