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Posted by on Oct 2, 2010 in Sailboat Racing, UK, US |

Olympic Sailing: Planning Ahead for 2016

The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) has proposed some pretty dramatic changes to the Olympic roster – and that’s a good thing.

For almost a year now, we’ve known that the 2016 Olympics will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the very first time the Games will be held in South America. And if a pair of recent International Sailing Federation (ISAF) proposals are voted through, the sport of sailing may well be showing off some “firsts” as well.

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The 49ers provide the most colorful fast action of all the current Olympic classes and are rightfully included in plans for future Games. Photo credit: FRIED ELLIOTT / friedbits.com

Decisions about the ten Olympic sailing events (men’s keelboat, women’s singlehanded, etc.) have historically been made five years out; decisions on actual equipment (the type of boat sailed) are made a year later, a few months after the last Games. It’s obviously difficult to discuss “events” in a vacuum, and in the past the process has often degenerated into a junior high school dance scene with the “popular” classes beating out the “wallflowers.”

Many of us who are involved in Olympic sailing have been wishing for a fairer system that would both better represent the sport and provide more long-term continuity. There has also been a push for equipment that is more affordable, to encourage the growth of sailing around the world. Last December, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge (himself a former Finn sailor) stated that the “boats should be as cheap and as universally widespread as possible.”

Well it looks like ISAF has been listening. Two submissions (096-10 and 097-10) will be voted on at November’s annual meeting that – if they pass – would lock in the ten different events and most of the equipment up to six years ahead of each Olympics. That means that decisions for 2016 could be final in the next few months, which would be great for both sailors and organizers.

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New proposals would combine the 470 men's and women's medal into one mixed discipline. Photo credit: FRIED ELLIOTT / friedbits.com

In addition to an increase in lead time, significant changes to the events (and therefore, the equipment) are also proposed. Some highlights:

  • Divide the ten events evenly by gender: four for men, four for women, and two mixed – one man and one woman on each team. (Currently there are six men’s events, four women’s events, and no mixing.)
  • Include windsurfing or kiteboarding.
  • Bring back the multihull, as a mixed event.
  • Combine the two 470 medals (men/women) into one mixed event (something I’ve been pushing for since 1996).
  • Where possible, use lower cost equipment that could be easily supplied at events.

A few of the classes (Laser/Radial, 49er, Finn) are mentioned by name and therefore seem assured of maintaining their place in the Olympic family. The Elliott 6m, which will make its Olympic debut as the women’s match racing keelboat in 2012, is also listed. But whether the Elliotts would be match-raced or fleet-raced in the future is an open question.

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The 2010 Women's Match Racing Worlds finals between Lucy McGregor (UK, right) and Sally Barkow (USA, left) came down to a photo finish. Photo credit: FRIED ELLIOTT / friedbits.com

No matter what happens with these two submissions, ISAF wisely plans to put off a decision on the fleet vs. match question until after the 2012 Games, which will allow time for feedback from an actual experience of match racing at the Olympics with supplied equipment. Match racing is great for spectators since the winner is always the first boat to finish, and the competition is fiercely international (see the results from the 2010 Women’s Match Racing Worlds). But both competitors and organizers complain about the expense. Since reducing costs is one of ISAF’s major concerns, match racing will have to put on a darned good show in 2012 to stay in the Games for 2016. (For more detail, read my perspective on the 2007 decision to incorporate match racing into the Olympics.)

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Anna Tunnicliffe and Lucy McGregor square off in the Elliott 6m's, a purpose-built design that will make its debut at the 2012 Olympics. Photo credit: FRIED ELLIOTT/friedbits.com

Do I think these changes are likely to be voted through this year?  Well, no… but at least we’re heading in the right direction.  As with all things ISAF, it’s not over until the final vote is cast (and sometimes not even then). Signficant changes like these usually have to be in the pipeline for awhile, to allow time for the back hallway discussions and deals that are a hallmark of ISAF politics. But it’s a start, and there are many great thoughts here. Hopefully our political leaders will have the courage to follow them through.

Related post:  USSailing Team Alphagraphics Celebrates Olympic Hopefuls

Carol Cronin

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