IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BOAT
Here’s a little quiz for you: think about the moment in Olympic Regatta history that most stands out to you from the past 20 or 30 years. What was it? Write it down.
Now, did that moment bring to mind the people or the equipment they were using? I’ll bet that most of the time it’s the people that come to mind first. It was the drama of a close situation where the unexpected happened.
Want to know mine? It’s the infamous match race between Ben Ainslie and Robert Scheidt at Sydney 2000. In my view, the Laser is one of the most boring boats to watch of pretty much all the equipment used in the Games, but it was immaterial to the drama of the battle between the Brit and the Brazilian.
That’s not to say that the equipment is unimportant. I can certainly think of other moments where the equipment was the making of the moment. What about that 49er Medal Race in Qingdao during the Beijing 2008 Games? The world’s best skiff sailors, who had skinnied themselves down for the predicted uber-light airs of Qingdao, now faced with monstrous wind-over-tide waves. Cartwheeling and pitchpoling ensued, and it was like watching a Formula One race in a pouring thunderstorm. Funny thing was, some people - myself included - loved that crazy Medal Race while others were embarrassed by it. The world’s best sailors - not even capable of getting their boats around the race track.
IT’S ABOUT THE PEOPLE
But mostly it’s the people that matter. Santi Lange was racing the fastest boat of the Rio 2016 Games but it didn’t matter that it was a Nacra 17 semi-foiling catamaran. What mattered was that the Argentinean had overcome cancer and, at the age of 54, had fought his way past the young guns to win the gold medal. It’s a story that all of us could relate to, even our friends who have never set foot in a sailing boat.
Another moment to remember is that Finn Medal Race at London 2012 when the medals were only decided in the dying seconds before the finish line. Ben Ainslie won an impossible gold, Jonas Hoegh Christensen salvaged silver and Jonathan Lobert rose to bronze. PJ Postma put it all on the line just before the final turning mark, going for a gap that wasn’t there. He could have settled for a medal, but he went for gold or bust; and the Dutchman ended up bust, but with his head held high for having the courage to risk it all. Finn sailors love their boat; you have only to see that this week there are 350 competitors at the Finn Masters World Championship. No Olympic medals in play, just 350 aging blokes voting with their spare time and their wallets to go and race against each other.
Equipment is important to sailors. We love our boats and choose them for specific and sometimes emotional reasons. But non-sailors who tune in to watch the Olympic Games don’t care about equipment choice. They don’t really care what brand of shoe Usain Bolt was wearing when he won the 100m sprint, and they don’t care about our beloved boats. What they love is the drama, the uncertainty of the outcome.
The past couple of weeks has seen a debate raging online about the decisions being made at World Sailing’s Mid Year Meeting in London. The future of the Olympic Regatta was up for debate and, after much toing and froing, the five events announced for Paris 2024 - to go along with the five already guaranteed a spot - were:
The two events that really have people confused are the Mixed Kiteboard and Mixed One-Person Dinghy. Mixed Two-Person Dinghy? OK, fine, that could be a 470 for example, helmed by a women, crewed by a man. But what exactly is a Mixed One-Person Dinghy? A relay race, perhaps? Who knows.
DRAMA MAKES MONEY
But if there’s one useful thing that might come out of the discussion about how to resolve this conundrum, it’s that the decision makers might start to think as hard about racing formats as they do the equipment itself.
In the end, this all boils down to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needing to make money out of the Games. It’s a hugely expensive beast and fewer and fewer cities are bidding for the Games as they have come to realise what a huge economic burden hosting the Games has become. So the IOC is looking to maximise TV revenues, and for that it needs excitement.
Excitement can come from spectacle and it can come from human drama, ideally both. High-speed boats like hydrofoiling Nacra 17 catamarans or pitchpoling 49ers can generate spectacle, provided there is wind. Then again, too much wind and those boats don’t get to play at all. Where did the most thrilling images come from at Rio 2016? From two of the oldest (and some would say most visually unspectacular) classes, the 470 and the Finn? Why? Because when those ginormous waves were rolling across the Copacabana Course, they were the two classes considered most seaworthy and capable of coping with such extreme conditions.
So the faster classes do not provide all the answers, and none of the classes provide an answer in zero wind. All sailing looks boring in no wind. Which is why venue choice is absolutely critical to the commercial success of sailing on TV. The presence of wind, obvious that it may be to say, is the number one critical success factor for sailing. Yes, obvious, but often overlooked.
UNPREDICTABILITY MAKES DRAMA
Second to the presence of wind is not the equipment, but a format that generates drama. And here’s where the real debate should be taking place. If sailing is going to help the IOC make the Olympic Games commercially viable, how much compromise to the sport are we prepared to accept?
Ask a consistent, proven winner like Giles Scott what kind of competition format he would like, and he’ll most likely go for the longest series of equally scored races. Because the longer a series runs, the more likely Giles is to dominate. The Finn class’s resident historian and reporter Robert Deaves estimates that Giles has won around 70 per cent of the regattas in which he’s competed BEFORE the Medal Race has even taken place.
It was the Medal Race that was brought in to create a higher factor of uncertainty going into the final day of competition. A double-points, non-discardable race that works some of the time to keep the medal outcome in the balance slightly longer. But it only tends to work half of the time. Five of the 10 golds in Rio 2016 were already wrapped up before the Medal Race.
So the question is, how much further - if at all - should we push the format? Would it be fair on the sailors - many of whom have invested 10 or more years of their young lives into the Olympics - to load everything into a winner-takes-all final race? After all, this is how the 100m is decided on the track. And it’s how the speed skating and many of the new, TV-friendly side-by-side racing formats in skiing and snowboarding are decided at the Winter Games.
WINNER TAKES ALL? OR IS THAT TOO FAR?
It’s a winner-takes-all final race that has made such a success of the Star Sailors League Final format. Last year in the four-boat final, Paul Goodison got the worst start but somehow was gifted the right-hand side of the course, the side that the Briton wanted. Goodison led around the first mark and led all the way to the finish until Robert Scheidt pipped him just before the line. Except he didn’t. It was a photo-finish and Goodison held on for victory by a margin of less than 1 second. No boats were foiling, and no people were harmed in the making of that drama. Yet it was undeniably dramatic.
Win or lose, sailors who have competed in the SSL Finals absolutely love the format. Would they like to stake their Olympic careers on it? That’s a much more difficult question. The 1996 Finn Olympic Champion from Poland, Mateusz Kusnierewicz, says: “I think one day we'll jump into this format. So many friends of mine who don't know about the rules and know nothing about sailing, they love the SSL because it’s so easy to understand. If you finish 4th in the last race, you’re 4th. And if you win, you win.”
The most important thing is to experiment with different formats and find out what works. Somewhere between the current Medal Race and the other extreme of a winner-takes-all final race like the SSL Finals format, there might just be a format that works for the sailors and delivers the kind of drama that the IOC is looking for. There’s six years between now and Paris 2024 to find out what’s possible.
Andy Rice - Sailing Intelligence
This article was originally published on StarSailors.com where you can find more great articles about the Star Sailors League and the top end of the sport