What’s Up in Sailing Politics – The Olympic Vision

The annual World Sailing conference is happening in Southern Spain, in November 2023, and Olympic Sailing will be the central topic. World Sailing is presenting an Olympic Vision paper with aim to align our Olympic strategy.

Meanwhile, the IOC just announced three sports have moved into the core category and 5 new sports will be brought to LA2028. Skateboarding, Climbing, and surfing got moved to core while Breaking has been dropped. New for 2028 is squash and then 4 new team sports in cricket, flag football, lacrosse, and baseball/softball.

There was a chance up to three sports would be dropped, but Weightlifting and Modern Pentathlon seem to have staved off elimination, while Boxing remains in limbo.

Critically for sailing, the IOC press releases included reference to sticking to the 10,500 athlete limit. Here are the quota estimates for the new team sports, and we can assume squash and breaking will balance against each other.

  • Baseball – 6 teams at 21 athletes per team – 126 quota
  • Softball – 8 teams at 15 athletes per team – 120 quota
  • Flag Football – 10 teams at 10 athletes per team with men’s and women’s tournaments – 200 quota
  • Cricket – 6 teams at 17 athletes per day with men’s and women’s tournaments – 204 quota

So, LA will allocate roughly 650 athletes to these new teams sports. This is 6.1% of the full Olympic quota.

Sailing has seen athlete quota drops on trend, and not in the way we would like. Check out the decay since 2008.

Year 2008 2012 2016 2020 2024 2028
Sailing Quota 420 400 380 350 330 ?
Medals 11 10 10 10 10 ?

For those who like forecasting, 6.1% of 330 is 20 athletes, so if sailing is mid-pack of Olympic sports, we should be expecting to lose another 20 quota spots, or if we’re below mid-pack, then it could be more.

For those of us on the inside of Olympic sailing, there is real tragedy in the quota decay. While big nations retain strong support for sailing, it becomes increasingly difficult for unstructured and unsupported teams to follow their Olympic dreams with any reasonable grip on reality.

At times Olympic sailing looks like it’s thriving. Looking out from the beaches of the Princess Sofia (Palma) regatta this year the bay was absolutely full of boats and boards, with the regatta setting recent records for participation. Then we look at the IOC’s actions in dropping our quota year on year and we have to ask, how can we carry momentum from the beach and bay forward into the IOC universe?

The IOC stands for dozens of wonderful principles when they communicate to sports. Since they stand for being good at everything it’s hard for sailing to prioritize with limited resources.

The IOC business model is clear. They get paid for views, just like Youtube, the Superbowl, or Champions League football. They know that being such a public organization they must aim at being a positive force on many fronts, but their core relevancy is based on bringing sports drama into households worldwide. Without the glory, pain, and drama there is no epic storytelling. Live sport is the original reality TV, and successful sports embrace that reality play out in front of the world.

Sailing has resisted this drama for years. We made some progress, changing equipment dozens of times, adopting umpired fleet racing to decide regattas in the moment, winning broadcasting awards as we develop technology to communicate our sport, and tackling items like gender equity.

However, we have resisted selling out and putting on a show, opting for long and drawn-out formats that are unlikely to unfold in the public eye. We can’t be a successful Olympic sport like this. Broadcastability of our Events is massively important. When medal races are close, the world notices. However, 40% of regattas are decided before the medal race happens and another large chunk are mostly out of reach. At our worst, for example, at the 2023 World Championship, 5 of 6 medal races were conducted while the Gold medals were already decided. While an agile broadcast crew can shift the focus of coverage to silver or bronze medal battles, that nuance can be confusing and anticlimactic for the general sports fans the IOC must entertain.

World Sailing is releasing an Olympic Vision document ahead of the 2023 conference for discussion. A preview was presented today at online ‘Town Hall’ meetings. Four high-level principles were unveiled as:

  • Marketability
  • Accessibility
  • Sustainability
  • Diversity

What’s unclear is whether the Vision set forth set up World Sailing for action or if it’s too vague to be actionable. Decisions set by large organizations are typically diminished via compromise, and if the vision isn’t clear, it can be hard to overcome the natural tendency to continue as is. Once the full document is published, we can see how clear the goals are and if a message of urgency to achieve them accompanies the adoption.

The need for a clear vision is hugely apparent in an example of what played out just last week. The format working party of the Events Committee proposed some minor alterations to the Windsurfing format for Paris 2024. The Events committee reviewed the changes and narrowly supported their passage. Then the Board of World Sailing rejected the proposal. So, three different bodies reviewed minor details, which were split in how they viewed them, and then, the top body rejected any change and opted for the status quo. This anecdote encapsulates the World Sailing political experience for the past 20 years and illustrates how easy it is for inertia to dominate bureaucratic bodies.

There are naysayers in our sport that say the Olympics don’t matter or some even say they harm our sport. To some extent that is true, but only if we’re constantly on the back foot. Sports that use the Olympics as a massive publicity tool it can gain massively from the exposure it can create, and sailing should look to maximize the opportunity we get every four years. If World Sailing adopts an Olympic vision that is clear, actionable, and urgent, then the conference in Malaga could mark a turning point for our sport.

Speaking of the Olympics, the 49er Sailing continental qualifiers for Paris are beginning. Follow 49er.org/subscribe to get updates on the Pan Am Games, European Championship, and Asian Championship where four continental spots will be decided over the next six weeks.


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