The way we offer sailing for Olympic TV – black & white thinking in the age of HD
There was a minor bit of fury around the recently completed Pre-Olympic test event in Qingdao, China this summer. Some were saying the conditions were awful, that the place never should have been selected as the host site, that this was all ISAF’s fault.
Really? The IOC picks a host country, and then sites for events within that country, based on what ISAF thinks are the best places to sail? Hardly.
It seems from most reports the facility is superb. Andy Horton called it the best he’s even seen. Was the sailing tricky, full of light air and current? Yup. Did that matter to the Brits? Nope. And the US had a very good showing too. Great sailors can win anywhere.
But there were flaws – mostly in the way the “medal” event was conducted. Two of the Gold medals were won before the last race – the “medal” event – was run. Imagine a sprinter being given the Gold medal in the 100m dash based on this qualifying times. No one would watch track and field then.
The problem is not so much the idea of a medal event, the problem is the way too many events in sailing are scored with allowing a drop race. Why on earth in the Olympics are we rewarding inconsistency in any respect?
Who in the general public that somehow finds sailing as part of the Olympic telecast is going to understand all of our arcane scoring? No one. It is lousy TV. Scoring format that isn’t perfectly clear to the first time view is a scoring system that will also make them a last time viewer.
The format should be 10 races – count the first nine, all nine - add up the scores and the top 10 go to the medal event. One race. Three medals.
Now, I’m not the only person opining about problems with the new Olympic format. Check out the comments by 2000 Star Gold medalist and ISAF Sailor of the Year Magnus Liljedahl in the Letters to the Editor section of the September issue of Sailing World. To paraphrase him, Magnus says the Star finals at Kiel Week this summer were flawed primarily because of the judging – that the courses were too short, and course location was absurd. Welcome to the world of TV and the Olympics, Magnus. He goes on to say about the Judges that (and I’m quoting now) “As it is now, they seem to know it all and they are not very considerate as to what the sailors view as legal versus illegal kinetics”.
Well, he’s got that partially correct – there has always been a battle between Judges and sailors regarding kinetics. One suspects Paige Railey would have the same sentiment after the Laser Radial Worlds at Cal YC this summer when she got tossed out a couple of races on Rule 42 issues.
But the issue isn’t sailors versus judges – the issue is our seeming need to protect the entrenched sailing beauracracy versus the need to feed the global viewing audience with a story they can understand easily – want then want to watch over and over, because it is full of human drama. People watch people – they don’t watch rules. Does anyone seriously think that any non-sailor is going to understand an umpire blowing a whistle on a Star sailor for the way they run back and forth on the deck to get it to plane downwind? Hell no. And Star sailors racing back and forth on the deck is potentially great theatre – especially if one falls overboard in the process.
We have strict interpretations of Rule 42 because we have historically tried to have a one size fits all rule for the entire sport. Some classes tinker with it a bit, but in the end, it’s just tinkering. If windsurfers want to air-row around the course, well, I guess that is one way to sail, but it’s not something that appeals to me. It just doesn’t look like very much fun. Maybe in Olympic sailing, we ought to allow all forms of kinetics – even sculling. The solution is two-fold and simple - sail blindingly fast boats in big breeze. The global TV audience is addicted to speed, and the human drama that comes with crashes – the agony of defeat.
During the Qingdao regatta I recall reading a report from an official that said they would consider changing angles of some of the legs and a few other minor things to help the racing. Please….. As if any of that is going to make one bit of difference to the viewing audience. Just tinkering at the edges. Because of the way the Olympics is run, there likely can’t be any wholesale changes in the format for 2008, but for ensuing years, if we really want sailing to be in the Olympics, then we need a completely TV-centric format, and we are going to have to think like a Hollywood producer. Forget the audience of yacht club members, and all the traditional elements that we think make good races – for sailing to remain an Olympic sport, we have no choice but to find ways to make it far more appealing to a mass audience. We don’t need ISAF, US Sailing, or the RYA talking about what we need to make sailing TV friendly – we need CAA, William Morris and ICM. Let’s have lunch. I’ll have my people call your people. Love ya, babe.
Right now, what we do is present the sport in exactly one format in different boats. We need to can a bunch of boats – why, other than politics, do we have both the Finn and Laser for men? (IOC President Rogge is an ex Finn sailor, so good luck getting rid of the Finn). How can the global viewing audience discern the difference between a Finn and Laser? They can’t.
Here’s what we need for boats and format – Fleet Racing - Laser, Men/Women – Windsurfer, Men/Women – 29′er/Women – 49′er/Men – Tornado/Open – Star/Men. Then, we need to get Match Racing back in - maybe it should be an Open event in Melges 24′s. Then, we should take a page from Track & Field and Swimming and have a Medley event – race around a fairly short circle course in four different boats - top six countries in terms of numbers of medals won qualify for this event, which will be after the fleet racing is completed, but prior to the Match Racing finals - first boat would be the Laser, then Windsurfer, then 49′er, with the Tornado the last boat. It’s a format that would attract viewing interest.
Getting match racing back in the Olympics is critical – with the America’s Cup drawing such massive attention – including an entry from China – why would ISAF and the IOC not want to capitalize on the equity in the sport that the America’s Cup develops globally, especially on TV?
I love sailing on well prepared high tech boats on a crowded starting line with a great crew in big breeze, up a long windward leg. But the global TV audience will go to sleep if we keep trying to shove that down their throats during the Olympics. The IOC will eventually kick us out of the Olympics – and the sport will be worse of for not being part of the Games.
Let’s junk that piece of furniture with that black and white tube, and move into the HD age by showcasing the best of our sport in a more dramatic fashion to the global TV audience every four years. We deserve no less.