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Olympic Sailing: Why not make it simple, accessible, affordable?

Editor's Note: Jean-Pierre Kiekens (BEL/CAN) is a Montreal-based former university

lecturer in development and agricultural economics. One of his present areas of interest is the development of sustainable and healthy food policies. He is also a sailor, having competed in the Laser and the Snipe in his native Belgium, while at university, and as a master sailor in North America at various national and international events. For the past years, Jean-Pierre has followed the evolution of his son, Jean-René, who is now 14 and who will represent Canada at the 2018 Optimist Worlds in Cyprus - check his Facebook page Jean-Pierre previously followed the evolution of his daughter, Alexandra, who is now 19 and who sailed the Club 420 and, briefly, the Laser Radial, after the Optimist, and who has temporarily put on hold her sailing to focus on her industrial engineering studies. M. Kiekens' views are not necessarily those of Sailing Illustrated or your Ed., but they provide some refreshing insight that we thought deserved airing here. Our appreciation to Jean-Pierre for his contribution. –TFE


MONTREAL – I was reading various contributions about what sailing should look like at the 2024 Olympics in Marseilles, France. And frankly, I was disappointed. There is very little convergence. There was no submission I could much agree with. And key issues that are present in the sport are left unaddressed. So here is my take to develop a meaningful program for the 2024 Olympics. I will just use a few common-sense criteria. First, let’s make it simple. We all know that sailing is mostly practiced in a few boats, such as single-handed dinghies, and double handed dinghies. Yes there are relative newcomers, such as the windsurf, the skiffs, kiteboarding, foiling cats, etc. There are also disciplines that previously took place at the Olympics, such as match racing. No need to reinvent the wheel here. Second, Olympic sailing should be made accessible by most. There should be boats for most of the weight ranges of sailors, something that is not the case with the current dinghies. Actually, many sailing athletes are presently excluded from participating in key categories, such as single-handed dinghies, because their weight is incompatible with the dinghies chosen for the Olympics. So change is needed to address this. And gender balance needs to be achieved too.

Third, Olympic sailing should be made affordable. This is something very feasible, but unfortunately, several of the Olympic dinghies are not at all affordable, and are unnecessarily expensive, excluding most sailors, and many countries, from truly competing. Again, changes are needed to focus on affordable boats. Wasn’t it Pierre de Coubertin who said, "All sports for all people"? So how to proceed from now on. I will first focus on what I would call the classics: single-handed dinghy; double-handed dinghy; windsurf. Then address the "relative" newcomers: double-handed skiffs; kite boarding; foiling catamaran; yet also consider what would be real new comers, such as moth foiling and coastal racing. In addition, I think that conventional fleet racing should not necessarily be the only discipline: match racing and raids / long distance, should for example also be considered. Now there are constraints in terms of the number of competitions, medals to be attributed. Of course, one cannot do everything. So let’s see what could possibly be done; let’s start the analysis. For single-handed dinghies for men, sailor weight is the key issue to address. Presently, light/medium weight men (say under 175 lbs - i.e. too light for the Laser standard) are excluded from competing at the Olympics in a single-handed dinghies. Heavier sailors are either in the Laser (175 to 195 lbs) or in the Finn (195 lbs or more). What could be done here would be to keep two boats, but to have them cover a much wider range of weights. Note that the sailor weight for the Finn has declined over the years, and is now barely higher than that of a Laser, as a majority of the top Finn sailors now weight less than 210 lbs. And let’s also keep in mind that many Finn sailors gain weight just for the purpose of sailing the boat (Sir Ben Ainslie was a Laser sailor before sailing the Finn, and he complained publicly about all the weight he had to gain to reach its weight target for the 2004 Olympics). So here is what could be done.

Sir Ben Ainslie won silver at the 1996 Olympic Games and gold in the 2000 Summer Olympics in the Laser class. He gained some 18 kilograms (40 lbs) and moved to the larger Finn class for the 2004 Summer Olympics, where he won gold, a feat he repeated in the 2008 and 2012 competitions. Source: Wikipedia.

There could be one boat for light/medium weight sailors - such as the Laser Radial or the RS Aero 7 (or equivalent) and one boat for Medium/heavy weight sailors, such as the Melges 14 Gold (or equivalent). New sail designs may need to be developed for these boats, to address precisely the targeted weight range, but that’s not a real hurdle. Introducing a light/medium weight single-handed dinghy would obviously be a true game changer, for the many many light/medium weight sailors across the globe, who are presently excluded. Both boats - the light/medium, and the medium/heavy weight - are not only addressing criteria # 2 - accessibility, but also criteria #3, i.e. affordability - they cost less than US$10,000, whereas the Finn, with all its weight and equipment complexities, is a way more expensive boat – about 3 times the price of those boats, for a high end Finn, and, ironically, with its 237 lbs (107 kg), over 3 times the weight of the RS Aero! As for single-handed dinghies for women, there may be no need to add a second single-handed dinghy, but changes need to be made. For sure, the Radial is too powerful for many women - most top Radial sailors are about 145 lbs - 155 lbs (or 65 to 70 kg). The Laser class could develop a new sail that would cover a wider range of sailor weights, and focus on the typical weight range for women - say 125 lbs to 155 lbs. Or another boat, such as the (previously Olympic) Europe, could be chosen, as, thanks to the possibility to choose mast and sail according to sailor weight, a wider weight range is achieved at the top of the fleets. If such changes are made, there isn’t probably a need to have a second single-handed dinghy for women (something recommended for example by Sail Canada). Remember, the number of Olympic sailing events is limited. Note that the Europe has become a pretty expensive boat, priced around US$10,000, so it’s not necessarily the best choice. New designs such as the RS Aero and the Melges 14, probably would also cover a wider range of female sailor weights (in their medium size version - Aero 7 - Melges 14 Blue, or with a new specifically sail designed aimed at precisely covering the targeted weight range). For double-handed sailing, there is clearly the possibility of having mixed boats. Now, this is something that seems to be accepted for the 470, when reading various submissions, but not for the 49er (FX). But why? One could have for example one conventional, mixed, double handed, such as the 470, and one mixed Skiff, double handed such as the 49er (FX). That’s it. Having only one skiff event, instead of two, will contribute to accessibility and affordability, as 49ers are among the most expensive Olympic boats, along with the foiling cats and keel boat coastal racing (but only few submissions support the latter event). Note that World Sailing has just announced a new "Offshore World Championship" that would involve 20 boats and may be a prelude for such racing at the Olympics. Bizarrely, the bids for this new event, have to be submitted by May 18, 2018, i.e., in just a month. The decision on this whole new format will be made by June 4, 2018 by World Sailing’s Executive Board.

So we will know soon about what it involves. But we already know it will most likely not be accessible (20 boats only - and likely not affordable either). Interestingly, the popular Tour de France à la Voile gave up on keel boats in 2015 and adopted a one design (non-foiling) trimaran sportsboat - the Diam 24 - which delivers amazing long distance racing (but only in daylight - which may actually be better for TV). Also, note that with time, the 470 should be replaced, ideally with a design that is more modern and/or more affordable (why not the i420?), or discarded to make space to newer types of boats.

[Update: see also this recent Tour de France à la Voile video here. –TFE] For windsurfs, why not make it simple: one competition for men, one for women, with equipment that is appropriate for typical weight ranges, and affordable. It seems that the RS-X is not sufficiently affordable - some submissions want it to be replaced. Boards such as the Techno 293 and the Techno 293+ would allow for quality, affordable, accessible racing to take place at the Olympics. No big innovation here. For kite boarding, why not make it simple, too. Have one event for men, and one for women? This would be on equipment to be determined, and one would need to make sure it is affordable. For foiling multi-hulls the mixed-sailed Nacra 17, which will be sailed at the 2020 Olympics, looks also like a good candidate for being discarded. It’s a very expensive boat (approx. US$ 40,000), and getting a boat is just the beginning. According to Rio Gold medallist, Santiago Lange, "We invest a lot of money in these Nacra 17’s. We have four boats. We have 15 mainsails, some mainsails we only use for one hour, we have four spinnakers with the flag, a couple of them we only use for a couple of hours." (source: Luca Devoti's blog.) Lange was actually against adding foils to the Nacra 17, as he didn’t consider it the most appropriate boat for foiling.

Today, many in the who’s who of world sailing (Paul Goodison, Tom Slingsby, Tom Burton, Peter Burling, etc.) compete in the foiling International Moth - a boat that seems much more ready for prime time than the Nacra 17. But Lange was not heard. Despite recalls and adding substantial weight to the hull to avoid breakage (hey, it’s a high performance boat!) , there remains many technical issues with the Nacra 17, including apparently poorly-designed foils. From observers’ accounts on the water, the boat doesn’t even appear to be that fast, compared to older designs. And there have already been serious accidents, and likely more to come. It’s bizarre that the boat is even authorized for the 2020 Olympics. We will provisionally keep it in our lineup for 2024, but also consider it a prime candidate to be discarded.​

Last month in Bermuda Paul Goodison (GBR) won his third Moth World Championship. The author, your Ed., and many of our Dear Readers have asked why this class appears not to have been given wider consideration for the Olympics.

[Update: see also this frankly amazing video from the 2017 Moth Worlds at Lake Garda. –TFE]

Now, at this point, what’s our total number of events? 3 single-handed (2 for men, one for women), 2 double-handed (conventional, skiff), 2 windsurf (men, women), 2 kite-boarding (men, women) and 1 catamaran. We have here a total of 10 events — that is the number of events that is expected to be retained for the 2024 Olympics. Unfortunately, that is not achieving total gender balance - essentially because one needs to have two single-handed boats for men, to cover the wide weight spectrum. Gender balance can be achieved through several means. One way would be to remove from the list above a mixed event (prime target would be the foiling cat, because of its many pitfalls), or a male event (such as one of the two single-handed categories, but that would harm the sport substantially) and replacing it with a strictly female event (for example, coastal racing, match racing, or moth/foil racing). One could also simply have the conventional double-handed dinghy – the 470 – only sailed by women at the Olympics - something that actually would reflect the fact that the boat is more adapted to women’s typical weights. Remember, with the suggested approach, light/medium weight male sailors would now have the opportunity to sail single-handed at the Olympics. There is also scope to bring in a bit of match racing, for example with the mixed or female only 470 event. Even events such as the single-handed dinghy (male or female) could include both fleet and match racing – on the same boats, within the same event. At the Rio Olympics, one of the most exciting moments was a match racing type of duel between Tonči Stipanović and Tom Burton in the Laser class, during the start sequence of the medal race, that enabled Tom Burton to win the Gold. More diversity in the racing could also be achieved with, in addition to regular fleet racing, long-distance races, for example for the kite and the windsurf (even if different equipments need to be used). I am not involved in World Sailing, and have not been into the discussions. I am just an observer. But frankly, it seems that a wider range of solutions is possible than what can be found in the various submissions. And there is a need for overall coherence, and we should focus on simplicity, accessibility and affordability, as discussed in this document. Beyond the proper selection of boats and disciplines, it will be essential to make sailing really amazing, that people watching it on TV will say, "Yes, I also want to do that sport." In terms of making all this racing amazing events, key ingredients will be to attract amazing sailors, to get amazing video coverage (drones, on board cameras, etc.), and to increasingly bring sailing into the mainstream media in the coming years. And the complete video recordings should be accessible live and afterwards through recordings on platforms such as YouTube. Progress has been made over the years, but even the America’s Cup found it hard to get the message out, so lots of work is needed on this. Another thought. Why just one sailor per nation? That’s a rule that could be dumped and then international qualifications via a world circuit would truly be needed, as just being the best in one’s country would not be enough to qualify. That would make the World Cup circuit much more interesting, and it would also make the sport much more attractive. For example, in the Laser competition is fierce for the one and only slot per country. In other classes, it sometimes is just too easy to get in. The present system is unfair, as those on the podium, for the Silver and the Bronze, are not necessarily the #2 or #3 in the world. Now, why does it all matter, if the Olympics are just one regatta held every 4 years? And also keep in mind that, for several sports, such as golf and tennis, the Olympics are really not important. Well, beyond the glory of a potential medal, a good selection of boats and events for the Olympics could truly help the sport of sailing, particularly with young sailors, by giving this amazing objective to such sailors that they could one day participate, or even win a medal. Today, the level of sailing in classes such as the Optimist is astoundingly high. Participation is huge too (think about the 1,400 participants at the recent Garda meeting in Italy). But many of the top Optimist sailors probably will never participate in the Olympics, and many youth sailors will abandon the sport, because of the lack of quality athletic development paths, lack of access, unaffordable costs. This must change to broaden the appeal of the sport, to increase participation, and to motivate youth sailors. The youth of today are the Olympians of tomorrow. Alignment is needed between youth and Olympic sailing. What’s the purpose of Olympic sailing if most talented youth sailors cannot even have a real shot at ever participating? Carefully selecting the boats that will make it for the 2024 games is therefore essential. Any comments, feedback, is most welcome. And I hope this piece will bring about some constructive debate, that will ultimately have some influence on World Sailing decision making. You can check my blog focussing on youth sailing, particularly the Optimist and the Open Bic, but also with "bigger picture" contributions such as this one, at:

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Jean-Pierre Kiekens is a native of Belgium who currently lives in Montreal and races a Laser, among other classes. Your Ed. very much appreciates his contribution of this thoughtful article to Sailing Illustrated, and this nice photo of him sailing his Laser.

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