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Olympic Sailing - The Genie is out of the bottle

Interesting to see the flurry of articles regards the proposal of the RS:X class to test a Knock-out finals system for the 2020 Olympics - who next?

Following a request by World Sailing, all the Olympic classes started work on improved race formats.

The aim is for Olympic classes to review, with proposals, their racing format and make the regattas more easily understood for media and spectators at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

It was agreed that 2017 would be the best time to test and eventually to implement a new race format to be used at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

The RS:X have suggested a move to a more normal - for other sports - competition format of a quarter, semi and a final with a winner-takes-all format, no carried over points.

The first accross the line winner format is sure to find favour with the IOS, and is much more tele-visual. No more calculating, counting back, discarding etc.

So, if the RS:X can live with this, can the other classes be far behind?

Proposed RS:X Format - Click image for a larger image

It goes against all the traditions of sail racing and deciding major championships over a long series to even out weather conditions and equipment malfunctions.

Although not the only Olympic event to require its own facilities, sports such as cycling, gymnastics and racquet and ball sports are easy to televise and draw huge local and world-wide audiences.

Sailing is expensive to run and to broadcast - thus the best sailing in Rio was not seen, either by the few local spectators or the world-wide TV audience.

The ten boat Medal race format was meant to address the problem of identifying the winner with one final race for the top ten qualifiers.

But, by carrying over the accumulated points, has more often resulted in a winner even before the Medal race (in Rio, four events secured gold in advance) or the one crossing the line first not even gaining a podium place.

While acceptable to aficionados, this failed to add real clarity for any viewing audience and was unlikely to engender any suspense (obviously a great media feature) ahead of the Medal races, when most results are already decided.

The problem is the accumulated points. By carrying forward the qualifcation series points, even with double points in the medal race, often the winner just has to turn-up and finish.

Many would say that just shows the domination of that competitor, but for the Olympics I do not think that is enough.

The drama of a final with the ultimate winner taking the gold on that day is the Olympics.

Also with a knock-out format the competitors have to subject themself to several points where they can be ejected from the series, thus creating a tension point for the audience and the media.

Sailing has ignored this confrontational element, but for how much longer?

On the occasions when the medal race does produce a real race, with medal positions at stake, we get a taste of what an improved format could produce - everytime - with the podium places being at stake in genuine Medal races.

So, with the RS:X move, the genie is out of the bottle. I expect to see variations of the knock-out format appearing over the next weeks from the other classes.

The Grand Dame of Olympic sailing, the Star class, has shown a decided resistance to being written-off since leaving the Olympic family, and has pointed the way with their high profile Star Sailors League (SSL) series.

Attracting remarkable numbers of World and Olympic champions to their final SSL event which features 20+ teams with ten teams making it to the knock-out stages.

Star SSL Format - Click image for a larger image

The SSL knock-out stages are interesting in that the top crew from the general qualifying race gets a bye into the final (thus maintaining the traditional situation) and the second crew a bye into the semi-final round.

The remainder of the top ten, ie 3rd to 10th, sail a single quarter final race with the top five going into the semi-final. Those five plus the runner-up from the general qualification then race a single semi-final race.

The first three in the semi-final then move to join the winner of the general qualification series in the final (equivalent to the Olympic Medal race) with the finishing order on the water deciding the medals.

This seems to tick all the boxes:

1. A general qualification series with all entries competing for the final knock-out stages.

2. The top two in the qualification series receive advantages byes into the final stages.

3. In the knock-out stages, without any points carried over, what you see on the water is what you get on the podium.

The RS:X proposal is more linier, without the byes of the Star system. But the byes do seem to be a nod to the tradition of the long series, and the four-boat final means that there will always be a challenger for the bronze position.

The adoption of some form of knock-out format across the World Cup Series and the Olympics would separate the Olympic classes even further from "club" sailing, which some would object to.

But it does seem the next logical step for the World Cup Series and may be essential if sailing is to remain an Olympic sport.

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