By Clinton Hayes
A Monumental Step Forward for the 49er Class
While clicking through the usual sailing media outlets, I came across something this week that deserves some more attention. In what I see as a truly revolutionary step,the 49er class has announced that they are moving forward with their “theater style” racing for the Rio 2016 Olympics and beyond. The real revolutionary part is not necessarily the format itself, but the philosophical stance they have taken by “proposing an alternative format to better align Olympic sailing with the Olympic business model.”
Large Country flags have been a staple in 49er sailing for a long time and are now required in all competition.
If you’re not familiar with it, theater style racing is the 49er class’s finals format. It involves 3 single point races with the top 10 boats from the qualifying series, no drops, with points from qualifying carrying through to the end. The big difference is it’s sailed on an actual racetrack, 600 meters by 325 meters maximum with boundaries that can’t be crossed. The class settled on this after multiple tests, and the decision to move in this direction after the single medal race format, run in the Olympics since 2008, turned out to be less than compelling for main stream media and not fulfilling for the sailors.
Theater Style Finals course (ignore MS and MP). The boundaries are actually a line of buoys on the same string so there’s no confusion. As this concept advances they will find even better ways to mark the racetrack.
If you haven’t seen one of these theater style races, they really are worth watching. Check out these from the Miami World Cup. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0qme8rhNJgfECErZy_bylLNncaT4P8Tu
For the first time ever you can watch a sailboat race from beginning to end and understand who won and how they got there. The races are about 12 minutes long and full of action, beginning to end. I would go out on a limb and even say its more exciting than watching match racing, which I really enjoy. It’s important to note that the video from Miami is a very amateur production, yet, unlike most live racing video, its still fun to watch. Think of where it could go with a full budget. Sailing could actually fit in the space between commercials in a normal Olympic (or any other TV) broadcast. You could explain to the public HOW someone won a race in more detail than just, “they caught a wind shift and went faster.”
Generally, changes like this are interpreted as some sort of a tradeoff. As Scuttlebutt wrote, “Sport vs Spectator…will the reward be worth the change?” Although I get where they are coming from, this is flawed old school thinking. How are theater style races worse for the sport? I only hear people talk about the 2 hour long Olympic races of years past with a glazed over look in their eyes. Sure, this racing requires a different, more tactical skill set but like always the boat that sails the best will win. If, on the off chance, a boat sails so well in the qualifying series that they are well ahead of the fleet, then they might only have to score mid fleet results in the finals to clinch the regatta win. In terms of spectator, is it better for sailing to move towards a golfing image or a more extreme Red Bull Media image? I could go on but the 49er class explains it best: http://49er.org/blog/classinfonews/the-49er-progression-drive-explained/
Some questions do linger such as, “what do the sailors actually think?” This will only be answered with time but given the direction high performance sailing is headed (think extreme 40s and the Cup) coupled with the fact that many of the pros are 49er sailors, they won’t (and really shouldn’t) be against it. Top Olympic athletes survive off marketing dollars and anything that generates more views directly correlates to sponsorship potential. Sure it will be stressful and sure, the team who loses the Gold because of an unlucky break will be frustrated, but that’s sport. Unlucky breaks are common and those who truly love sport will come back time after time, not because of the race they won, but because of the Gold they lost on that unlucky break.