Reshaping Oly II
As I mentioned in Part I of this three-part series, the Olympic Regatta in Athens was atrocious in terms of public access, exposure, and general promotion of the sport. More things were done wrong than were done right. Four years earlier, in Sydney, the public-albeit a public that knows and likes sailing-embraced the sport. There were hundreds of boats on the water for the first Olympic 49er race and people gathered all around Sydney Harbour to watch the races. It was one of the few free tickets in town and sailing reveled in the attention. The final Men’s and Women’s 470 races were carried live, in their entirety, on Australian TV.In Athens sailing went from the easiest ticket in town to the toughest. There was only one spectator boat and it was sold out months in advance. And those who got on board were largely disappointed as the boat shuffled between the four circles, missing more crucial moments than it caught. Non-official boats weren’t allowed within a cannon shot of the regatta and the public had no access to the sprawling venue. The regatta felt, in many ways, like a typical world championship or Olympic Trials-where only the participants, and a few other interested parties, care about the results. For American sailing fans back home, viewing the 15 to 30 minutes per night of TV coverage required an extra hit of caffeine and a cable connection; it aired on MSNBC around midnight. The irony of the Athens Games was that sailors were front and center at the opening and closing ceremonies; Mistral sailor Nikolaos Kaklamanakis lit the Olympic Torch and the gold medal-winning 470 duo of Sophia Bekatorou and Aimilia Tsoulfa doused it, an unprecedented double. In between those moments, sailing was relatively ignored.Some of this was venue-specific. The event management didn’t do sailing any favors. Most of their decisions seemed to be based on the unassailable logic that safety was their primary concern. However, the Olympics are a spectator sport. Compared to other events, the sailing regatta was run inside a vacuum. It was overkill to say the least. In addition, the main television feed often missed the most dramatic sailing because of a reluctance to stray from its pre-set schedule of featured races. With two and a half years to prepare for Qingdao, there are plenty of things ISAF can push for to improve public access to the sport. And I mean PUSH! Some or all of these ideas-none of which are rocket science-may already be on ISAF’s agenda, and the organizers at Qingdao may be saying all the right things about how they’re going to encourage spectators and media. But ISAF has to be vigilant: the Athens organizers reportedly had plans to increase the public access to the regatta, but scrapped them at the eleventh hour.1. Get more spectator boats: This is obvious. There should at least be one good-sized boat for every circle and they should receive the live feed from the TV cameras to enhance what spectators can see with their own eyes.2. Allow public access to the venue: It would’ve been quite easy to provide spectator access to the sailing venue in Athens, even if just to allow fans to watch the sailors getting ready and sailing out to the course and then coming back in. The mouth of the Olympic harbor, a narrow cut through which every sailor had to pass, would’ve been perfect for spectators to cheer on their friends, wave flags, hang banners, etc. An extra step would’ve been to create a place where the athletes could, at their discretion, mingle with fans. It would’ve been a security hassle, but what isn’t at the Olympics? People will do anything just to be a part of the Olympic experience. The Olympics differ from many other sporting events in that regard. The actual competitions are secondary to the chance to root for your country, mix with other cultures, and be a part of the scene. This is why you regularly see 10,000 fans deliriously happy to be watching archery or white water canoeing, sports that never pull in similar numbers outside the Olympic arena. This is why tickets for the Olympic Curling competition in Torino, Italy, this coming February, are nearly sold out. 3. Bring a course close to shore: Make it possible to see the sailing without getting on a boat. Set a course close to a breakwater or a spit of land. Create an Olympic Sailing Park with a big screen TV, food vendors, etc. In Athens they could’ve let people onto the outer seawall of the Olympic marina and run races nearby. The penultimate day of 49er races proved this was possible as the starboard layline and windward mark were 200 yards off the outer seawall of the marina. It was disheartening to see the boats on the starboard layline so close to the marina’s outer breakwater, which was barren of people. The breeze can be a little shiftier close to land, sure, but this is sailing. On all of the inner-harbor courses in Sydney, the land had a significant effect on the wind. I don’t remember one complaint. But I do remember plenty of sailors saying how cool it was actually hear people cheering as they went around the course. Finally, the presence of spectators will add to the appeal for television. No one likes to watch a sport on TV when the stands are empty. Jubilant fans can make any sport seem a lot more exciting.4. Cover the best action: Whoever produces the television feed must be flexible enough to change the schedule to pick up the best races. The final 470 race in Athens, which had the great pre-start duel between Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham of the United States and Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield of Great Britain, should’ve been the featured race of the day. It wasn’t.None of these ideas are revolutionary, and even as a whole they won’t do much to change the IOC and NBC’s opinions of sailing. At best, especially given the expected light conditions in Qingdao, the sport will be able to tread water. Fortunately, while virtually every important decision has already been made for 2008, few have been made for 2012. This open slate represents a huge opportunity for the sport to reinvent itself in the eyes of the people who hold sailing’s Olympic future in their hands. I’ll take at shot at those changes next week.