Does Olympic Sailing really need to ‘Change or Die’?


One of the great mistakes made by many sailors on the eve of an Olympic Regatta is to make some radical change to their equipment at the last minute. To measure in a brand new mainsail that they’ve never used before, only to discover - when it’s too late - that it wasn’t as fast as that one they’d used in the regattas leading up to the Games.

It’s a classic mistake, and one that people never quite learn. And after all, sometimes you DO find the silver bullet, the radical change that no one else has discovered. Occasionally, very occasionally, this silver bullet approach works. But most of the time it’s evolutionary change, not wholesale upheaval, that wins the day.

We’re on the eve of World Sailing’s Mid-Year Meeting, and up for discussion is the future of Olympic Sailing. On the table are some radical proposals, amongst them to introduce kiteboarding into the Games for the first time, and to bring in an offshore keelboat competition. Whilst the 10 events are locked in for Tokyo 2020, the slate for Paris 2024 could be very different.

The feeling is that the International Olympic Committee is breathing down the neck of World Sailing, and watch our sport’s decisions very closely. “Change or Die” more or less sums up the feeling. We’d better make some radical changes quickly, or else they’ll be forced upon us. Worst case, sailing is ejected from the Games altogether.

One of the clear aims of the IOC is to have achieved 50:50 gender equality by Tokyo 2020. This laudable goal has been around for some years, but the urgency of achieving equal representation for women and men appears higher than ever. We’re told this applies not just to athletes but to support staff and race officials too. Quite a challenge, especially in the short timeframe. How many female principal race officers do you know?

This places some of the existing classes under threat, notably the Men’s Heavyweight Dinghy, the Finn. There is no female equivalent event, so the Finn rather sticks out like a sore thumb. So, why does it deserve to stay in the Games? Well, currently it’s the only event where a sailor over 85kg could hope to be competitive. There used to be quite a bit of choice for the larger sailor before the Soling and the Star keelboats were retired from the Games, but since the Star’s departure after London 2012 the Finn has been the only place for the big boys to compete.

Strangely, for all the fact that the IOC is strongly in favour of gender equality, it has also said that the only place where the term ‘weight’ should be used in any of the Olympic sports is in the fighting sports like judo and boxing. On the one hand, a very inclusive attitude towards gender, on the other hand, an exclusive attitude towards humans of different shapes and sizes. 

World Sailing ignores the IOC’s wishes at its peril. After all, the IOC - whatever you might think of its aims - is the customer. One of the IOC’s buzzwords of the moment is ‘urban’, and it has stated an interest in kiteboarding as an example of how sailing might tick that ‘urban’ box. 

Some take the view that kiteboarding isn’t sailing. Indeed in France, it is considered not a watersport but an ‘air sport’, to the point where France’s Civil Aviation Authority,  Direction générale de l'aviation civile, has been brought into discussions about regulating the sport of kiteboarding. Others see kiteboarding as a more affordable and highly efficient form of sailing. It is, after all, powered by the wind and the equipment costs a few thousand dollars whilst achieving performance on par or even superior to the multimillion dollar hi-tech catamarans used in the last America’s Cup.

So how much should the sport ‘Change or Die’, to keep the IOC happy?

To read the rest of Andy Rice's article, go to



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