The rowing world is abuzz about the future of rowing in the Olympics. Rowing News magazine and the popular rowing website www.row2k.com have recently published articles concerning the subject, and it seems you can’t have a rowing conversation without touching upon it! The Olympics are big, so whispers about the Olympics reverberate loudly, and rumors spread with a manic intensity. Amidst all this talk, the global leader of the sport of rowing, FISA, is holding its cards close to the chest. That, given the importance of the Olympic games to rowing athletes around the world, is in my opinion, a dubious policy.
Much attention is being given to consequences of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) putting pressure on FISA to drop all lightweight rowing events from the Olympic schedule. Furthermore, the IOC wants to reduce and cap overall athlete numbers (1). Rowing is not the only sport under such pressure— a quick Google search reveals articles discussing similar concerns among other sports federations. Included were articles about the IOC reducing the number of weightlifting athletes in 2020 (2), along with concerns from the track and field community about losing certain events (3). With its high athlete count, rowing is certainly under particularly intense scrutiny, but perhaps there is some solace in knowing that the rowing community is not alone in experiencing this pressure from the IOC!
Concurrently, the IOC wants to keep the Olympics relevant and aligned with current audience trends— they want to stay hip and connected to a “more youthful” (1) audience.
I believe that coastal rowing represents the best solution to both the pending loss of lightweight Olympic rowing and the IOC’s objective to introduce new events that reflect modern trends.
How coastal rowing could save lightweight Olympic dreams.
Coastal rowing uses different boats than flatwater rowing. FISA specifications mandate a boat that is shorter and wider than flatwater classes. Because of these differences, FISA coastal boats have less inherent glide to their run, and cover less distance between strokes. If you add the headwinds and choppy seas that are often encountered in coastal racing, a coastal boat’s run will be further reduced. In such conditions, a shorter stroke can have great benefits. A FISA coastal boat responds very well to “tapping it along” at a dynamic, compact, high stroke rate. Hence, depending upon course design, venue and conditions, a classic heavyweight, ultra-tall athlete with a long sweeping stroke is not always going to enjoy a natural advantage in coastal rowing.
Agility, boat handling skills, water awareness and navigation are critical skills in coastal rowing. Multiple buoy turns introduce all the challenges great sailboat skippers face—each turn is a high-stakes chess game of boat placement and split-second tactics. Races can be won or lost depending on how well an athlete can round the buoys, and a more skillful lightweight athlete can frustrate and stay ahead of a less skillful athlete of any size.
If a coastal racing venue has large waves, the exciting element of surfing is also introduced. Coastal boats can reach phenomenal speeds when surfing waves (my own 500 meter PR is 1:03 in a Rebel C1x coastal single surfing a storm swell). An agile rower, of whatever size, with excellent surfing ability will pull a “horizon job” on a less skillful boat handler, no matter how big and strong he or she is.
Suffice it to say, coastal rowing is a sport that tests a multitude of skillsets, which limits the emphasis on a particular body type. For instance, at the 2018 World Rowing Coastal Championships, Men’s gold was won by a small heavyweight: Champion Eduardo Linares Ruiz of Peru stands about 5’11” tall. Men’s Silver went to lightweight rower Lars Wichert from Germany (yes, a lightweight rower!). The Men’s Bronze went to a classic 6’6” heavyweight, Simone Martini from Italy. (All three of these medalists are National Team elite athletes, so we can assume a similar level of training.)
The key takeaway is that FISA Coastal Rowing has already demonstrated, at its highest level of competition, that it supports a vast range of body types, and no single body type has enjoyed an inherent advantage year after year.
In the context of the IOC’s antagonism toward lightweight rowing, Coastal rowing’s “body-agnostic” feature has the potential to pay huge dividends to the global rowing community: Should the IOC eliminate lightweight Olympic rowing and “replace” it with FISA Coastal Rowing, competitive lightweight rowers around the world would get a new Olympic event in which to compete on equal footing.
How Coastal Rowing could save the 2K
New sports favored by the IOC seem to fall into the “extreme sport” category. Surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing are being added to the Olympic program in 2020. For its part, FISA has consistently referred to Coastal Rowing as the “extreme side of rowing:” There is chaos. Crashes are common. Aggressive racing is typical—boats bump, oars clash, rowers yell for right of way. An entire field of boats converges on a hairpin buoy turn at full speed, and the scrappiest, most wily boat captain maneuvers her boat almost magically through a mess of confusion. Beach starts see athletes sprinting through the sand and launching through the surf in a glorious spectacle. Coastal rowing has the wildness and alternative, roguish ethos that the IOC seeks for a new generation of young viewers. Plus it takes place on a beach, always a great backdrop for those highlight videos!
As a potential response to IOC pressure for format changes to Olympic rowing, shortening the traditional 2000 meter race distance has been suggested. Other suggestions have included adding stake turns. In my opinion such tweaks diminish flatwater racing’s long and storied history, without the prospect of attracting a new audience to rowing at large, or expanding the sport’s established base. On the other hand, adding Coastal Rowing to the Olympic slate would expand viewership (good for the IOC), extend participation in rowing, and give lightweight rowers a place to compete (both good for FISA and the sport of rowing).
To address the IOC’s concern about overall athlete numbers, Coastal Rowing events could be limited to: single (C1x), mixed double (CMix2x), and quad (C4X+). That scenario would eliminate separate events for the male and female double, thereby reducing athlete count while maintaining an equal number of events for male and female athletes. A mixed double event was introduced at the 2018 FISA Coastal World Championships, and could further extend the appeal of a new rowing event in the Olympics.
Perhaps this is a discussion for another day, but if rowing’s overall athlete count still needed further reduction, I think a fair concession would be to consider reducing the flatwater boat classes to the single, pair, quad and eight. That would result in a big boat and a small boat in both sculling and sweep. This scenario would allow for overall athlete count to be reduced, introduce a new “extreme” version in coastal rowing, and maintain keystone flatwater 2K events. That would satisfy both of the IOC’s directives: reduced athlete numbers while adding fresh, new events.
History could bolster the chances for success of this proposal: there is at least one Olympic precedent to augmenting a longstanding traditional sport with a new variant: in the Winter Olympics, traditional skiing events have been maintained following the more recent addition of “radical and new” snowboarding.
Be Bold FISA
In summary, I think it’s time for FISA to make a bold statement about the future of Olympic rowing. Of course, the IOC is ultimately in charge of the Olympics, but as the world governing body of the sport of rowing, FISA has tremendous influence. Coastal Rowing is the perfect solution to the challenges created for FISA and the rowing community by the IOC. Coastal Rowing offers: a less buttoned-down, more extreme and even radical sport that will attract new audiences; a pathway for lightweight rowers to resume their Olympic quest; an opportunity to reduce athlete head count while retaining the traditional flat-water 2K.
What do you think?
If you are also in favor of coastal rowing for the Olympics, please let your voice be heard! Vibrant community support and discussion will help FISA and the IOC get a better sense of the thoughts and passions of the rowing community. You can share this blog, write your own, or perhaps even start petitioning FISA (http://www.worldrowing.com/fisa/about-fisa/council/) to undertake a more determined path to promote coastal rowing for the IOC’s objectives.