Changes to the Olympic Programme: Trials of the Lightweight Men’s Four

At the start of this month, World Rowing met in London for the bi-annual National Federations Conference. Since the conclusion of this meeting, proposed changes to the Olympic programme have come to light. The nature of these changes are as follows:

  1. Remove the Lightweight Men’s Four and replace it with the Women’s Four
  2. Remove the Lightweight Men’s Four and Heavyweight Men’s Four and replace with Lightweight Men’s Single and Lightweight Women’s Single.
  3. Remove the Lightweight Men’s Four and the Men’s and Women’s Double and replace with the Lightweight Men’s Single, Lightweight Women’s Single and the Women’s Four

Before we get started, I must state that I am 100% behind the Gender Equality movement and for there to be equal numbers of male and female athletes racing at the Olympic Regatta.

As can be seen from these three proposals, the National Federations seem pretty keen to rid the Olympic programme of one of the best events at the regatta. Consistently close racing has become a hallmark of the Lightweight Men’s Four and the London 2012 Olympic Final was arguably one of the most exciting races of the Olympic regatta. So the question must be asked, why remove this event?

The Agenda 2020 Olympic Movement has been the catalyst for these proposed changes. Of the 40 recommendations put forward by the IOC, the ones in question here are:

Recommendation 10: Move from a sport-based to an event-based programme.

Recommendation 11: Foster Gender-Equality.

These recommendations first came to light when FISA President Jean Christophe-Rolland warned of their ramifications back in 2015. The current Olympic Programme consists of 14 events, 8 Men’s and 6 Women’s events. With the number of events and athletes at the Olympic Games capped to 550, the only way to achieve gender equal numbers is to remove a Men’s event and add a Women’s one.

The key areas of consideration when evaluating each event (as taken from the World Rowing presentation entitled ‘Events principles and rules review’) are as follows:

  1. Gender Equality
  2. Universality
  3. Inclusion
  4. Sustainability
  5. Health of Athletes
  6. Other
  7. Event Principles and Programme.


The most important of these considerations are one, two and three. The addition of a Women’s event will achieve gender equality in the Olympic programme, but the current proposals would undermine considerations two and three. Universality and Inclusion were the main reason why lightweight rowing came about and even World Rowing themselves have stated the same,

‘Lightweight rowing was introduced to the Olympic programme in 1996 and its primary purpose was to make rowing more accessible around the world’ (World Rowing Article -‘Going Heavy, Going Light, Changing Weight Classes’)

Looking at entries in the Lightweight Men’s Four as opposed to the Heavyweight Men’s Four over the 2014 and 2015 racing seasons show 122 entries for the Lightweight Men’s Four and 108 in the Men’s Four. The argument that developing countries are unable to enter a crew in the Lightweight Men’s Four simply doesn’t stand. Brazil were able to enter a Lightweight Men’s Four for two of the World Cups in 2014 and South Africa won their first ever Olympic Gold in rowing in this boat class. Furthermore, the Men’s Heavyweight Four has been won by two countries at the past six Olympics – hardly an advert for Universality and Inclusion!

The removal of the Lightweight Men’s Four will have massive ramifications across the sport. The size of national lightweight squads will likely be halved or more, less people will attempt to pursue the sport to the highest level and future stars will be lost when their chances of making it to the Olympics are so drastically reduced. As a lightweight rower myself with Olympic aspirations, the news of these proposals hit home hard. Although I am able to scull to a respectable level, my strength as an athlete has always been in a sweep-oared event. The removal of the sweep discipline from lightweight rowing will alienate hundreds of rowers in the UK and even more worldwide.

As a rowing community, it falls upon us to promote alternatives that don’t eliminate a whole section of the sport. There have been many alternative proposals brought forward on social media and I believe there is one which would provide the fairest, most equal and most inclusive regatta.

Men’s 8+                                 Women’s 8+

Men’s 4x                                 Women’s 4x

Men’s 2-                                  Women’s 2-

Men’s 1x                                 Women’s 1x

Lightweight Men’s 2x                        Lightweight Women’s 2x

Lightweight Men’s 4-            Lightweight Women’s 4x

This programme would allow two events in each discipline for Heavyweight rowing, one big boat and one small boat, and an event in each discipline for lightweight rowing. The exception is the Lightweight Women’s 4x, at the moment there are no lightweight sweep events for women, but under the proposed changes by World Rowing to the World Rowing Championships, this would change and so given time, the quad could change into a four. This way, each gender has exactly identical events and this only takes up 12/14 event slots, votes could then be taken on which Men’s and Women’s event to be included.


Alastair Douglass


You May Also Like

  • Lewin Hynes

    Several points I would like to take issue with in this article. First and foremost is the idea that the LM4- has really done anything for universality at the Olympics. Since 1996 there has only been one, non traditional rowing nation represented in the LM4- A final and that was Ireland coming in 6th in 2004, and Ireland stretches the definition of a non traditional rowing nation. And, whilst GB and Australia have carved up the the M4- since 1992, Denmark’s domination of the LM4- is almost as assured. The A finals of the LM2x have produced somewhat more variety, but any reading of the podium results shows the traditional and recently professional rowing nations dominating. As the article states lightweight sculling and rowing were introduced to support universality. They do not appear to have succeeded after 5 Olympiads when both women, lightweight or otherwise, and male heavy rowers have been denied the chance to compete on the greatest stage of all. In all its aims of universality and equality lightweight rowing has not succeeded

    Next, you mentioned that the first three “key areas of consideration” were the most important. I would like to think that point Five, “The health of athletes” should also get a look in. Whilst I am not able to quote any evidence on he mortality and morbidity of lightweight rowers, I will mention some phrases heard in conversation – “my digestion has never recovered” “his vertebrae crumbled” “anorexia” “sweat runs” etc. If no evidence can be found to prove the dangers to the health of participants, then I would be surprised if any can be found to defend it on the same terms.

    Finally, more and more lightweight rowers are demonstrating that they are not a class apart, incapable of producing the same power as heavyweights, both Henrick Stephenson and Jeremy Azou have the physical ability to perform in most nations first eights, specially when their lack of boat displacement is accounted.

    So given that men’s lightweight sweep oar rowing has failed to provide universality at the Olympics, has prevented gender equality, has provided an arguably greater risk to the health of its particants than heavyweight rowing, and does not provide a necessary route into Olympic competition for the most talented of lightweights, I feel that it has no further place in the Olympics.

    • disqus_ZyUUVBY2HH

      Can’t help but disagree with the majority of your points Lewin.
      Firstly, other than the fact that the only Gold medal from an African nation was in the lightweight fours event, you are going to struggle to convince me that adding in a heavy Women’s 4 event is going to have an affect on the universality of the sport. Nor are you going to convince me that the Women’s 4 events is going to be full of non-traditional rowing nations. Also, with the average height of males at 5ft10 lightweight events provide a brilliant platform into the sport for all.
      As a lightweight myself I have never suffered with any health issues. But if you are trying to argue that Heavyweights suffer fewer health issues I can assure you the amount of back injuries far outweigh lightweight health injuries. Furthermore, if people are going to extreme lengths such as ‘my digestion has never recovered’, one would question whether the universality of lightweight rowing is as bad as you make out? Why wouldn’t they just race as a heavyweight?
      You are correct though that the 2 disciplines are not that far apart at all and you have picked 2 great examples athletes. Both, however, would struggle to make a top national team even with their exceptionally good erg scores. One could also argue that as there are so many heavyweight events out their the talent is diluted across the programme which brings the standard of the lightweights events closer the heavyweight.
      The most sensible option for me is to remove the heavy 4 and add in a lightweight women’s quad which would make the race programme equal. But a sweeping statement such as lightweight sweep has ‘prevented gender equality’ is obscured and just a little bit silly.
      This article is completely in favour of Gender equality, and as am I. Whilst this comment has been very ‘pro-lightweight four’ that is only to respond to your very ‘anti-light weight 4’ approach. Gender equality is absolutely vital for the sport to evolve but the lightweight sweep events, which takes up only 4 seats, should not take the hit.

      • Lewin Hynes

        Fine points, well made, and hard to argue with, but also I find that I cannot agree entirely.

        I feel that we shall reach no definitive conclusion here and the decision will be made vastly above our pay grade in any case.