Step Forward into the Future
Here's the good news: the final slate for Rio 2016 includes a women’s skiff, one of the few places where what's “good for TV” and what's “good for athletes” dovetail. Though the actual equipment hasn’t yet been chosen, the 29erXX seems a likely choice, especially since it was just recognized as an ISAF international class.
Step Back #1: Two 470 Medals
The 2016 slate has reverted to a men's and a women's medal in the 470, instead of the single “mixed gender” medal approved in November 2010. This step back to a traditional Olympic roster (along with the retention of the “men’s heavyweight dinghy,” aka Finn) shows how Eurocentric the thinking remains—at a supposedly International Sailing Federation.
Step Back #2: Eliminating keelboats, or throwing out the baby with the bathwater
For years I've followed the battle over whether to keep the Star in the Games. Yes, it's a venerable boat with many visible heroes, but an arms race to develop the fastest hull shape within the confines (and loopholes) of a 100 year old set of class rules is ridiculous. And after eighty years in the Olympic family, the class is established enough to carry on around the world.
What really fries me is the elimination of the women’s keelboat, the Elliott 6m. Yes, I’m biased, both as an American (we could easily fill an entire Olympic podium with our 2012 Olympic hopefuls) and as the skipper of the first US women’s keelboat Olympic team. But even when I step beyond my bias and look at what’s good for our sport, this change still doesn’t make any sense.
The Elliott 6m was specifically developed to be the supplied equipment for women’s match racing in 2012. The boats are fun to sail (much more so than the stodgy Yngling), fun to watch (ditto), and offer a modern platform for keelboat racing, the segment of our sport with the largest participation.
For the past three and a half years, national sailing programs have purchased pairs or fleets of these exciting boats, a significant investment even for larger countries. ISAF has just waved two middle fingers at all those programs—especially 2016 Games host Brazil, which took delivery of their Elliotts on the same day as this final vote.
Worst of all, ISAF is justifying its decision as cost-reducing, when what it really reduces is any return on investment. Eliminate match racing if it’s too expensive—but don’t make this excellent keelboat obsolete after only three years.
Step Back #3: ISAF reverts to its bad old ways
Last November, ISAF passed a new system of Olympic voting designed to reduce backroom deals (read "Olympic Sailing: Planning Ahead for 2016"). Six months later, the Executive Committee waffled, blocked the Events Committee’s recommendation, and then voted in favor of another slate altogether. I know it’s naïve to think decisions that determine the success or failure of national sailing programs could be made without politicking, but it sure seems like there's a better method than this ugly “squeakiest wheel” politics.
For 2016, we’ve made one step into the future—the women’s skiff. And the multihull is back, this time as the first "mixed gender" discipline. The rest of the roster shows not what’s best for our sport around the world, or even what’s best for TV. And it certainly doesn’t represent the wider world of sailing. What it showcases is whose lobby is strongest. No surprise that the “winner” was one of the oldest and best established Olympic classes in Europe.
Of course I’m already taking for granted one massively positive change. More than five years ahead of the 2016 Games, the disciplines and most of the classes have been named. That gives athletes and federations more time to prepare for the next quadrennium.
So I guess that’s two steps forward….