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The REAL challenges for Olympic Sailing

by Rob Size, 470 sailor on 7 Nov 2010
Laser startline Qingdao 2008 .. .
Right now the ISAF Olympic Commission and a group of ISAF delegates are going to sit down and decide the future of our sport as a part of the Olympic Games.

The Executive Committee released a large report regarding a number of areas in which sailing has to improve to maintain its place in the Olympics, and a number of strategies to deal with these problems. The overwhelming response to this Olympic shake down has been focused around the classes sailed at the Games. This is an important issue no doubt, but in no way the most significant challenge sailing faces as an Olympic sport. The number one challenge faced by sailing as an Olympic sport is the disappointing way in which it is presented on television.

The major challenge as far as Olympic classes are concerned is that there are so many different types of sailing, yet so few slots in the Olympics. In other words, the ISAF have to decide which types of sailing most deserve to be in sailing’s 'pinnacle event' – which types of sailing are the 'pinnacle' types of sailing!

There is probably no more contentious issue in the sport, and every sailor from a seven year old beginner to an Olympic gold medallist has (and is entitled to) their own ideas. Together, the classes selected for the Olympic Games must make sailing an affordable sport to participate in, must cater for a wide range of body shapes and sizes, must represent different types of sailing and must be 'appealing.' This is termed ‘universality,’ and currently the classes represented are doing a reasonable job of this:

• The Laser is affordable

• Between Lasers, 470s, Finns and 49ers there are Olympic opportunities for people of both genders throughout different height and weight ranges.

• Apart from the exclusion of the multihull and women’s skiff, and the increasing sentiment that a foiling boat and kite board should be represented at the Olympics, the classes cover a variety of modes of sailing. The Laser and Finn are hiking classes which sail square downwind. The 470 is a trapeze/hiking class that sails in different modes downwind with symmetrical kites. The 49er uses an assymetrical kite and sails high angles at fast speeds gybing downwind. The windsurfer and keelboats represent other important forms of sailing.

My argument following is that the appeal of these boats as an Olympic sport rests much more in the way the racing is presented than the attributes of the classes in particular.

Considering these four areas and popular opinion, it seems clear that there should probably be a multihull event and a skiff event for the women – perhaps down the track a foiling class. Kiteboarding would probably do better as an event entirely separate from sailing.

The multihull would mean the Games cover a wider range of sailing types, and the introduction of a skiff class for women means that both men and women race with symmetrical and assymetrical spinnakers.

These are issues of fairness and broad representation, and currently it seems that to introduce either of these events would mean removing something just as important. This is not an argument in terms of what is better or more exciting.

Arguments regarding classes in terms of how exciting they are undermine what competing in the Olympics is all about, and in terms of generating spectators are not reliable. The rest of this article will explain why, and give some solutions.

The 49er was introduced in the year 2000 to bring the exciting element of skiff sailing into the Olympic Games. Yet, judging by the figures presented in the Olympic Commission Executive Committee’s report, it hasn’t done sailing as a spectator sport any great favours other than in one medal race, when the weather was the most spectacular element..

Sailing is the fifth most expensive sport to produce for TV, but in 2004 and 2008 it was the least watched event.

There is a genuine fear that if sailing does not increase in popularity, it will be shunted from the Games entirely.

The response of the community has been one focused around introducing exciting classes. The inability of the 49er (which is exciting by any sailor’s standards) to make an impact in this area is a signal that other forces are at play regarding sailing’s pitiful popularity.

In other words, introducing faster more exciting looking boats alone isn’t the answer.

The answer lies in sailing’s presentation. Sailing in general is badly presented on television.


The general consensus from people who have never sailed in their lives to those who train multiple days a week is that sailing just isn’t compatible with TV.

This of course isn’t true, sailing could be made into a television success and there are instances of it doing so. But, here are some of the inherent obstacles it must overcome:

• Sailing is perceived as an elitist sport.

• Sailing is not regularly exposed to the public.

• Sailing (and especially racing) is complex.

• Sailing is dependent on weather.

• Wind speed and boat speed do not translate well on water.

These are obstacles that sailing will always face, limitations of the sport that must be overcome to make sailing interesting. The problem with the Olympic presentation is that it does not tackle these problems, if anything it exacerbates them. Two examples:

• The women’s 470 medal race: Australia had to beat the boat from the Netherlands to win the Gold. The presenter mentions this in passing – to viewers it would appear that the boat that finished at the end of the fleet won a gold medal…?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLzWUF1TNtI

• The 49er medal race: To suggest that interesting TV can’t be made of this footage is insane. The boats were totally overpowered and capsizing. In the midst of all this there was the issue of the Danish team racing the Croatian boat, and the fact that different boats at different times were in grasp of a gold medal before having their dreams crash and burn in violent capsizes.

The 49er medal race - where can we find this vision with English language commentary?



The recurring trend with these videos is that the sailing is not presented or explained as a race. The presenter narrates some clips of boats sailing then announces the winner.

The challenges, strategies and intricacies of the events are totally lost on the viewer, and they are not in any way exciting – for sailors and non-sailors alike. So, given this, here are some of the things sailing must do if it is to be a spectacular spectator sport in the Olympics:

Have interesting commentators to make the event as exciting as it can be, learn some lessons from other sports (car or horse racing springs immediately to mind).

Commentators should have knowledge of the competitors and the boats that are racing. They should be able to explain how one boat beats another to someone who does not sail.

They should have a rapport with each other, or maybe even conflict. They should also make clear the manner in which the event works, making clear what exactly is at stake. The viewers must understand what is going on and it is the job of the commentator to make it clear and engaging to them. The viewers should come to know the commentators as well as the competitors.

Also, sailing must be simplified. Coverage should include some basic theory in presenting the races: why boats tack upwind, how sailors use shifts and pressure changes, the influence of the tide and surrounding land forms.

Stuff that we as sailors take for granted should be gently worked into the race presentation so the person watching feels like they are becoming an expert.

It should also be made more personal. Along with the racing there should be time interviewing the competitors.

The commentators should talk to athletes about themselves, their boats and their racing. The person sitting at home should know who is on what boat, and have a reason other than their nationality for wanting them to win

At the end of the day, the television ratings rest entirely upon a person flicking through what is on, and, after watching the sailing for a few seconds, deciding to stay tuned.

All of the above strategies aim to secure people in this manner, whilst at the same time presenting a form of sailing that we sailors can enjoy watching intentionally. Much of the Commission’s report focuses on changing the nature of the events themselves or engaging with modern technologies for presentation.

They make a valid point that it is not viable to present a 30 minute race when considering how many races there are. The best strategy would be to cut down the races in a way that does not sacrifice the overall coverage of the event as a race, and to make efforts to show races that are going to be the most interesting (for whatever reason). The commentary issue was mentioned in passing in 3.27 of the report, and has been massively underappreciated.

The best way for the ISAF to tackle the problems faced by sailing as an Olympic sport is not to significantly change the classes that are raced in the Olympics, and not even the format of the racing. To make sailing popular it must be presented in a manner that taps into the excitement we feel on the water when we are racing ourselves.

The presentation has to be action packed, and this does not just mean fast boats, it means close and exciting racing that is understandable to the average person at home. Ideally the ISAF should create their own broadcasting team, where they handle the presentation of the sailing themselves to get it right.

If the ISAF does this successfully they will make sailing more popular and in doing so give it a stronger position as an Olympic sport. With time, those people at home who stay switched onto the sailing may come to enjoy watching it and go out of their way to watch the sailing events.

Sailing as a strong Olympic sport would give it greater flexibility, paving the way for the newer forms of sailing and additional classes some people so passionately campaign for.
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