five-ringed circus

The current unseemly squabbling over which sailing classes should be medal events at the Summer Olympics does little credit to World Sailing, the international class associations or the Games themselves. This tension arises from two sources: the inherently complex variety of sailing as a sport, and, the peculiar standards by which individual sports gain their relative status within the Olympics.

Consider these comparisons. There are just two medals for football, the world’s most popular sport, but 12 for fencing. Eighteen gold medals can be won in wrestling, 15 in judo and shooting, 14 in weightlifting and rowing, 13 in boxing, and 12 in canoe/kayak. Sailing has 10 medal events. 

How can such a distorted emphasis on minority sports be reconciled with their modest popularity? The answer lies in the International Olympic Committee’s criteria for inclusion. Numbers of participants or the size of the fan base don’t count. “Prevalence” is judged by the number of continents and countries that regularly compete in a given sport. 

This is a silly reflection of the supposedly democratic principles behind the ‘one country/one vote’ system at the United Nations. The vote of Brazil (population 215 million) has the same value as the vote of Belize (population 400,000).  

Further, when it comes to sharing the huge revenues from TV rights and merchandising, the IOC uses a system of dividing the sports into five categories of descending “popularity”. These are assessed on the basis of television viewing figures (40%), Internet popularity (20%), public surveys (15%), ticket requests (10%), press coverage (10%), and the number of national federations (5%).

Sailing, which tends to rate rather poorly on most of those metrics, is way down in Category D, along with equestrian, handball and taekwondo. (Not surprisingly, athletics, swimming and gymnastics dominate Category A.) 

World Sailing hoped that the new discipline of mixed gender two-handed offshore racing might elevate them into Category C, particularly in relation to more TV coverage and internet popularity. Instead, the protracted standoff with the IOC has made sailing look like a sport that might have some difficulty maintaining its present Olympic status.

The pressure group calling itself Offshore Doubles hasn’t helped with its repeated assertions that short-handed sailing is “the fastest growing discipline in our sport”. 

Even if that claim were true (which is impossible to prove), it is a statistical sleight-of-hand that uses a low base to produce superficially impressive figures. Rate of growth is not an absolute number. For example: if a new class of 20 boats adds five more in a year that yields an annual growth rate of 25%. Meanwhile the Lasers would have to add more than 50,000 new boats in the same year just to match that rate because there are already 215,000 Lasers in the world.  

Sailing is unique as an Olympic sport in that it encompasses a multiplicity of classes (what the IOC likes to call “equipment”). Therein lies the problem. The fundamental skills of sailing are common, yet there is a huge variety of boats and boards in the ten allocated events. 

That inevitably leads to competition, jealousies, bickering and politics between the class federations. World Sailing then has to somehow resolve those conflicts to the satisfaction of the International Olympic Committee. 

The IOC, in turn, has its own agendas. At the moment their main priorities are gender equity, appeal to youth and ensuring that each sport is as accessible, and affordable, as possible. Tested against those standards, sailing struggles to achieve a pass mark.      

Mind you, the Olympic movement is capable of tolerating some outrageous exceptions. Witness the Dressage event in equestrian where the horse does the foxtrot while competitors sit bolt upright in the saddle dressed in 18th Century hunting attire while trying to pretend that they are taking no part in proceedings.

Even track and field persists with some events that would fail every one of the IOC’s required qualities. Does pole vault command high television ratings? Is the Internet ablaze with young supporters of steeplechase running? Are ticket sales for the hammer throw breaking records? 

Silly me. As everyone knows, the gold medal in the hammer at the last Olympics in Rio was won by that superb athlete Dilshod Nazarov. He’s a household name – in his native Tajikistan. 

Jump in to discuss.

 – anarchist David