What is rowing willing to do to stay in the Olympic Games?

At the FISA Conference this week, proposals have been put forward on how rowing will evolve in the future to maintain its place in the Olympic Games, where the sport has been an ever present since the Paris Olympics in 1900.

The key aspects of the conference can be found here http://rowglobal.com/2016/03/07/fisa-conference-review/ written by Fatsculler.

Essentially the view of FISA comes down to this – what is rowing willing to do now to remain relevant to the Olympics, rather than wait and have restrictions imposed on them by the IOC in future?

This question has come about mainly due to the publication of Olympic Agenda 2020, that puts 40 recommendations forward to protect the future of the Olympic movement. http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Olympic_Agenda_2020/Olympic_Agenda_2020-20-20_Recommendations-ENG.pdf

Many of these recommendations have a direct influence on rowing, and FISA must act to protect the future of our sport.

When speaking with rowing friends about writing this piece, all of them took exception to the very thought of rowing losing its place in the Olympic Games. They believed that the importance and value of rowing was set in the history of the Olympics and therefore on no grounds should it be removed.

Well, let’s look at the history. In February 2013, the IOC took the decision to drop wrestling from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme as a result of its performance as a sport in London. It has since been reinstated from 2024 but demonstrates that the IOC are looking to the future in terms of sports, audiences and revenue. This blows any idea that rowing has a divine right to maintain its status as an Olympic sport right out of the proverbial water.

There are actually many reasons as to why rowing has a tough job staying in the biggest show on earth. To begin with, hosting a rowing event is expensive. The recent decisions made by the Rio organising committee to cut back on the regatta infrastructure originally promised in the bid are now extensive; from the state of the water to the abolishment of a floating grandstand. The sustainability of having a lake with world-class facilities to host the rowing must also be addressed. The potential of the Gifu Lake from the 2005 World Rowing Championships as a suitable destination for water sports for Tokyo 2020 is surely a move to meet the recommendations of cost and sustainability?

Most interesting perhaps of all the recommendations from a rowing perspective is number eleven. Gender Equality requires a 50/50 split of all participants, and at the moment this isn’t the case in rowing. FISA have offered three options on the development of rowing to meet this goal. All of the plans involve the lightweight men’s four leaving the Olympic programme. This has been met with fierce criticism of FISA and the decisions they are making. Not only do FISA have the job of evolving rowing to meet the needs of the IOC, but they also owe it to the athletes to maintain the standard of event and competition. Naturally, having sixty single sculls, each from a different country, shows magnificent diversity and ticks some development boxes for the IOC. However, it doesn’t ensure quality. There is a fine balance between having a diverse starting line up that demonstrates the improving work of World Rowing in reaching out to, and supporting new countries in our sport, whilst ensuring racing is close, competitive and most of all compelling.

I trust FISA to make the right decisions on how to best deal with the future of our sport. It is clear that without the Olympic Games, rowing would have a very different look, particularly for heavily funded countries such as GB and New Zealand.

It is important to scrutinise the decisions our governing body makes, but rowing has evolved in the past. From the introduction of a 2000m race (1912 Olympic Games) the inclusion of women racing (1976) and then allowing them to match the course distance of males (1988) to the introduction of lightweight rowing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

There will be winners and losers in the recommendations FISA has put forward, but examining what rowing is willing to do maintain its place in the Olympic Programme is the next step as the sport continues to evolve.

FISA also have problems to solve in how to maintain interest in rowing for the future viewers of our sport. Each year, the Boat Race, World Cup and World Championship races get high levels of interest, but nothing compared with the audience that the Olympic Games receives.

So how could we maintain their enthusiasm, and develop our sport in a way rugby and cricket have with Sevens and Twenty20? There are many ways in which rowing could become more of a spectator friendly sport. These range from ‘miking’ up the crews, coxes and coaches during competitions, night races with lights on the athletes, wearable cameras on the athletes themselves or shortening the specified racing distance.

Lots of talk has been made of shortening it right down to a sprint. Is rowing the same sport if we dramatically alter its composition? Where is the need for feel and technique? The mix of endurance and strength required over 2000m that we currently have would disappear. Recommendation number fifteen of Olympic Agenda 2020 says that the “IOC’s ultimate goal is to protect clean athletes.” Currently, rowing is regarded as a largely clean sport. This will change if the format of racing is cut down to a sprint. Becoming a completely power based sport would potentially bring rowing into a cheating sphere. Rowing doesn’t have the power, money or support that cycling or athletics have within the IOC to manage this position

The last thing the sport needs is to be embroiled in a drug scandal. In the quest to change sport to improve the Olympic interest, be careful what you wish for!

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