Reform Olympic Sailing – It’s Too Complicated!

I am a lapsed RYA Senior Dinghy Instructor, with seven summer seasons under my belt teaching adults and children how-to-sail, many moons ago on the beaches of Europe. Needless to say I love sailing!

But I haven’t watched it during the Olympics because it’s not very entertaining to watch on telly. It’s too complicated, and also, it’s not easy to spot a winner, or to even understand the racing. Sport needs to be compelling to watch to draw an audience. If sailing wants to capitilise on the success of quadruple gold winner Ben Ainslie’s inspirational Olympic career, and not turn off would be sailors because they don’t get it, then in my opinion, ISAF needs to reform Olympic racing.

Even recreational sailing is not a simple sport to participate in because it’s propelled by the elements and the multiple combinations of weather and water. To be a competitive Olympic master a sailor needs to put in years on the water learning to understand these dynamic weather and water patterns and turn them into a winning strategy.

There are a few simple things sailing could do to make it more adrenaline based viewing. They should run knock out heats, akin to the athletics, and a pursuit race final where the first boat across the finish line is the winner. Watching Ben win gold, sailing across the finish line in 9th did not have me jumping of the sofa in the same way it did for Jess Ennis’ 800m run in the Heptathlon and she didn’t need to win, but she wanted to give the crowd a great show. Sport is also entertainment. This has to be considered as a component in it’s function.

The livery of the boats and sails in my opinion needs to be even better branded to more clearly denote the nationality of the sailors, their on the water gear needs to be very clearly liveried, and the course setting needs to be very clearly marked as part of the viewing. Each GB competitor needs to be even more identifiable as Team GB from mast heat head to hull, the body in the boat and the sails they display. The current livery is not enough. Black wetsuits and white boats don’t distinguish the competitors enough, especially from a distance.

The basic principles of sporting enthusiasm is based on pick a player, team, colour and cheer it on – the more visible the player, the more informed of their progress and possibility the more engaged the specator becomes. Sailing needs to find it’s entertainment factor and create races that audiences enjoy because in these cashed strapped times a sport’s equity and investment will be based on it’s profile. It’s time to look forward, get smart, get visible to create a sport that is compelling to watch when winners and losers can be clearly interpreted. There is no reason that sailing can’t move into the modern age other than the stifle of tradition and the legacies set by the ‘fear change’ bureaucrats that run the sport. If the poster boy of British Olympic sailing, Ben Ainslie, retires then sailing will risk being ignored unless the sport evolves and understands that the more compelling and engaging it is watch the bigger audience it will draw and consequently more investment.

This video say’s it all really – click on pic for an Irish perspective on Olympic sailing.


  1. Hmmm. Not sure about this one. I agree, sailing is not a spectator sport and in this age of TV viewership, it needs to be more compelling. But I don’t think that changing the way people sail is necessarily right either. A knock out heat style approach may make it easier to understand, but if you sail, you know that there are too many variables in a single race to make it fair to make it a knock out. It needs to to be sailed across numerous races. That said, perhaps there can be a middle ground in which the first few races sort out the top ten from the rest. The next few races sort out the top five. And only the top five sail for the medals.

    I think the way they score the races should be better explained at the start of each race too.

    1. I would be happy if they ran a series of course heats, but I think a pursuit race final is the answer. I think it is a level playing field in class sailing like in all sports it comes down to be the best on the day. Obviously, rigging and tuning comes into but I don’t see why teams can’t have boat engineers like the cyclists do as part of the squad. In fact it would make the sport more exciting. Sailing is so backward facing. It doesn’t do itself any favours and capitilise on the assets it has.

        1. Yes indeedy!!! And you too!! I am so excited about the Vendee Globe and so will be blogging about that from October – March. I have been sailing since I was sixteen and have worked in sailing on and off since I was 18. I am a big fan!!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: