RowGlobal chat to Matt Smith, executive director of FISA

First of all, let’s look at the Olympics. There are obvious concerns with regards to the location. What sort of dialogue have you had with the IOC to reassure FISA that the location is suitable?

Matt: For the first time in many years, the Olympic rowing venue is in the centre of the city. Of course, we were re-assured that the water quality would be improved leading up to the games. However, as in many emerging countries, the growth of the city’s infrastructure has not kept up with the growth of the population. We have good information coming from the testing and we are confident that there will be suitable water quality when we race. In fact, for the test event during the same early August period of time, the testing results showed that the water was of ‘swimming’ quality.

We are aware of some journalists who are advocating testing for viruses and we have taken this very seriously. The result is that our independent inquiries with experts confirm the clear recommendations of the World Health Organisation that testing for e-Coli is sufficient to have a full appreciation for the health risk to rowers as a secondary contact sport. Another health risk is the Zika virus that has been widely attributed to the spread of microcephaly among new-borns. We are keeping a close eye on this with the IOC Medical Director Richard Budgett.

The Junior World Championships took place at the Lagoa last year – how useful is that set-up in determining things that need to be addressed for the Games?

Matt: Since 2003, staging the World Rowing Junior Championships as the test event has been a great training ground for the OCOGs [organising committee for the Olympic Games]. They can train many volunteers and see the complexity of staging a ‘world-level’ event if they have not done so before. It is a great test for all departments of the OCOG and they learn a lot, whilst it helps us really prepare the ‘field of play’ so that all the technical volunteers and staff are trained and prepared. We also can finalise any issues with the OCOG so that we are sure that the Games go very well.

The decision to cancel the floating grandstand was one of a number of budget cuts. How much do you anticipate that affecting spectator levels, and general interest in the sport?

Matt: Well, we are in a new era. As you have seen, the cost of the Games is a huge issue that is causing major concern. Any large expenditures are always the subject of considerable attention. A key element is spend vs. legacy. In these more cost-conscious days it is in our sport’s interest to pay even more attention to the legacy element in the justification of costs for our venues. This applies to all sports. In this case, upon further scrutiny, the cost of the floating grandstand had not been fully appreciated and, when tough times hit, the first question was what it leaves in legacy for the city and for sport. The answer was, basically, zero.

Going forward, we will have to pay particular attention to making the case for creating a water sports centre for the youth of the city and create business models that create the case for a self-sustainable future for such a centre. The days of huge expenditures in sports venues that later require continued government support to stay open are over.

The IOC are introducing a number of new sports to the Olympic program – how does FISA plan to maintain rowing as an Olympic standard event?

Matt: FISA is in very close contact with the IOC on how they see the evolution of the Olympic Games going forward. When public budgets come under increased scrutiny, government officials have to be very careful in how the taxpayer’s money is spent. This means that the Games need to become more self-sufficient, whether that be through revenue stream from television rights, sponsorships or ticketing. The content of the games also have to be attractive to these revenue sources to keep the event strong. So the addition of new sports is a move in that direction, but it means that the existing sports have to keep an eye on their attractiveness to continue with this tranisiton. FISA is in regular discussions with the IOC to discuss this amongst other issues, and a process is on-going to evaluate our full event programme to make sure we are in line with the thinking of the IOC.

I understand the organising committee are struggling to sell tickets?

Matt: Struggling is not exactly the correct term. My take on the situation is that the cost and limited availability of accommodation in Rio reduces the potential number of spectators who would make the trip, not to mention the crises that keep popping up. That leaves the rest of the ticket sales to the domestic spectators – word on the street is that many of them choose to wait to make the decision as opposed to making the decision for in advance.

Sports like Golf & Rugby 7’s are coming on-board with major sponsors in place. What plans does FISA have to draw in additional funding for a sport which already costs a lot to host?

Matt: Well, this is an example of the trend. The IOC has seen the popularity of Rugby 7s and the fact that it has a more universal take-up than the traditional game. This is an evolution of the sport that has helped them to enter the games. The IOC could also not ignore the strength of the manufacturer’s base in golf as well as the televisual following it has. But golf and rugby have had big challenges in Rio as these two sports are almost non-existent in Brazil. The golf federation has had to bear a huge share of the costs to keep the event going.

But the market for international federations now is very difficult after the scandals of FIFA and IAAF. We seek to differentiate rowing from the other sports and federations; our partnership with the WWF and our water research and rowing centre in Kafue, Zambia demonstrate this.

Rowing struggles with the middle class, white-man stereotype – how is FISA addressing that in the current day, in light of the IOC’s plan to improve reach to developing countries?

Matt: FISA’s development programme has made great progress since it started in 1985. Rowing is practised in more countries around the world than ever before. We are particularly proud of the achievements of the South African Lightweight Four and Angel Fournier of Cuba to diversify that perception. However, there is a limit. One has to take account of the fact that a rower has to dedicate up to four hours of his or her day for training, has to consume up to 5000 calories and, in the rest of his or her waking hours, there is a need to study or work. In most of the world, there is not a government subsidy for those in the rowing squad, so it needs to be taken into consideration that an endurance sports like ours has a natural limitation for penetration into poorer countries. Coastal rowing is a fantastic initiative to offer our sport to those who do not live near a river or a lake.

Do you believe coastal rowing can achieve the same level of interest as standardised racing? How does ocean racing help the sport?

Matt: We adjusted coastal rowing to a format which was easy and exciting to watch; we began with a sailing set-up which was far too boring and impossible to follow. The main motivation for coastal rowing is to enlarge the rowing family; we want to bring new athletes on-board and to expand the opportunities for people who do not live near a river or a lake.

My personal opinion is that ocean rowing is too risky. There are some incredibly dangerous stories going around about what has happened on these ocean crossings and we don’t choose to be involved with that. A sport should be safe and not life-threatening.

Vincenzo Abbagnale of the Italian men’s squad has missed three doping tests, and faces a two year ban. Does FISA centralise the tackling of doping, or is it up to each country?

Matt: This is a very public case of an athlete, from any sport, who did not take the fight against doping serious enough. All top athletes from all top sports have to live with this window of one hour per day to be available for testing. They cannot risk the consequences of missing this hour. Vincenzo had two missed tests already and should have been super careful not to miss a third. There is a lot of discussion in Italy now over how this could have happened. Did the team leadership not emphasize the gravity of the situation? Should the team’s medical staff have been more alert? If he or the staff did know that he would be far away from the designated point, why didn’t they act to make sure he was where he was supposed to be? This is an unfortunate case of an athlete probably not appreciating how serious the world of sport is in terms of anti-doping measures.

The World Indoor Sprints are a great new initiative – could rowing potentially take on another form as an indoor sport?

Matt: It is a really interesting group. We’ve been trying to find a credible and believable way to connect with them and include them as members of the rowing family. Concept 2 has been fantastic and has helped make this form of the sport possible. It is one of several initiatives that are designed to build up to rowing’s place in the World Games in 2017, and we believe it is a big step forward for indoor rowers and World Rowing in general.

Looking ahead, what is FISA’s plan for development over the next ten years?

Matt: The key words for the future are sustainability, diversification and legacy. All development activities have to be sustainable. That means that the people seeking to start or further develop the sport in their locations, need to be sure they can source funding locally and need to know that they cannot depend on us or others. The next key word is diversification; coastal rowing, indoor rowing, youth, university and masters rowing. We need to make all these rowers feel valued, respected and welcomed to the global rowing family.

Photo credit Anthony Benoit

Tom Morgan

Previous editor of Row360, publisher of Junior Rowing News, freelance writer for the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post, Vital Football and others. Student at the University of Southampton.

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