OK, I’ll say it: the decision by World Sailing to make a single, mixed, two-person offshore keelboat race a new Olympic event for 2024 is crazy.
In their misguided attempt to invent a gender-equal, media-friendly contest they have, instead, created a contest that will have far too many negative complications in practice and contradicts the fundamental qualities of genuine Olympic competition.
The idea underlying the whole notion of ‘sport’ is that everyone taking part should – at least in theory – begin with an equal chance of finishing in first place.
As an Olympic sport, sailing has always seemed rather problematic in that regard. The core issues are its reliance on complex equipment with moving parts, i.e. boats, and the major role that luck can play in determining a result.
Finalists in the 100-metre dash have no equipment beyond their shoes. They must survive an exhaustive series of elimination heats. They all race over the same course at the same time, and under the same conditions. In the end, the fastest runner wins the gold medal.
Sailing will never match that level of sporting purity because it cannot avoid the element of chance. Championship events are contested in purportedly identical boats to minimize technical advantages, and over many races (with discards) so that the effects of gear failure or variable conditions should be evened out across the fleet.
So what does World Sailing do? Dream up an event that throws both those underlying principles of fair competition overboard.
First, the boats. So far, these are purely imaginary. We’re told by World Sailing that they will make a decision as to what boat will be used for the mixed offshore event “by the end of 2023 at the latest”.
Great. That leaves plenty of time for the various contending designers and manufacturers to do their self-interested lobbying of the IOC and World Sailing for the lucrative honour of providing the ‘Olympic’ class.
But it’s no help for the sailors. They’ve been told to train and compete in “similar” craft in their own countries. That might work in the richest few first world nations, but what chance will sailors from the poor regions of Africa, South America and Asia have to assemble a fleet of identical 30-footers? This does little to counter the popular allegation that yachting is an elite sport that excludes the disadvantaged.
The pre-Olympic qualification process for the offshore contest first requires a national championship, then an elimination regatta (probably a world championship) to produce a maximum fleet of 15 boats with at least one representative from each continent. But remember, much of that preliminary racing will not be in the class of boat to then be sailed in the Olympics. Brilliant!
The second fundamental problem with the mixed offshore proposal is the nature of the race itself.
The video presentation released on YouTube this week by World Sailing shows four alternate courses for 2024. That’s remarkable in itself. Imagine if on the morning of the Sydney-Hobart start the organisers announced the fleet would instead be racing to Brisbane and back, or maybe out to Lord Howe Island.
But laying that aspect aside, the inherent problem with a single offshore event is changing conditions.
Over the length of this proposed three/four day race (presumably around 400nm), there will inevitably be big variations in wind speed and direction. The best tacticians in the world can still find themselves on the wrong side of a shift, or sailing into holes. Luck is an accepted part of offshore racing, but it should play no part in determining an Olympic champion.
As to the push for ‘gender equity’ mixed-crew events it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that this is little more than a virtue-signaling gesture from the IOC and World Sailing in the wake of rekindled #metoo-style feminism. Do they have mixed teams in hockey or football? Mixed competitions in judo and wrestling?
In any case, this is nothing new. In 1900 the Countess Hélène de Pourtalès – an American who somehow became minor Swiss nobility – crewed on her husband’s 2-3 ton class yacht and became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
It was a potent example of gender equity in sport before anyone had even dreamed up the term – and 70 years before women even got the vote in Switzerland.
The pompous YouTube video introducing the new event boast that “heroes will be born” (not “heroines”?) and that “mixed offshore sailing will captivate and inspire millions before, during and after Paris 2024”. I’m not so sure.
– Anarchist David