Saturday, August 16, 2008

Yet More Olympic Sailing Participation Stuff

This is a follow-up on the previous post and Tillerman's comment. To understand whether more countries could get involved in Olympic sailing, some understanding of how sailors and countries qualify for the Olympics is needed. However, plunging into the arcana of Olympic qualification systems may not be for the faint-hearted.

The basic outline seems more or less as follows:

Quota System

Based presumably on input from the host country and various sailing mugwumps, the International Olympic Committee and International Sailing Federation come up with a target quota for the number of countries (and hence boats and sailors) in each sailing event. I would assume that the quota also could have something to do with how well the event plays to worldwide audiences (television viewers, advertisers, networks, i.e., money making and entertainment value). It also may have quite a bit to do with how many countries normally are interested in participating in the Olympic Sailing events. It would be embarrassing to set aside, say, 100 slots for Finns and have only 20 countries show interest in competing.

Qualifying Countries:

Now, how is that quota filled? Each country will wind up with at most only one slot in each sailing event.

The way these slots are filled seems more or less as follows.

The host country automatically gets to enter a team in each event. That’s one down.

Then, 75% of the slots are qualified for during the International Sailing Federation World Championships the year before the Olympics.

After that, 25% of the slots are qualified for during each boat’s world class championship preceding the Olympics.

Special circumstances may require the ISAF to fill a slot or make adjustments to the quota system.

There are quota systems or targets for the World events, but these typically allow for many more entrants than the number of countries that will be qualified for the Olympics. For the ISAF Worlds, each country that wants to send an entrant will be given a slot, then further slots will be assigned to each country, which then gives them to whatever sailors it wants to. Each country may have a different way of handing out slots for the ISAF worlds; the invites might depend upon membership in the national team or performance in recent world championships or other means of ranking. Countries with lots of active sailors in a class may get several slots in each ISAF Worlds class event.

The results of the ISAF Worlds determine most of the countries that qualify. The countries are qualified and ranked according to the best score from among the sailors participating from each country. So, the results rank both the sailors and the countries.

For a simplistic example, suppose the first several results were

  1. SHMOE, Joe, Great Britain
  2. BLOW, Joe, Paraguay
  3. ROE, Moe, Great Britain
  4. DOE, Tow, Chad
  5. HO, Chow, Nepal
  6. SLO, Bo, Chad
  7. POE, Bro, Paraguay

Then the country ranks would be (1) Great Britain, (2) Paraguay, (3) Chad, (4) Nepal; the second-best and subsequent sailors from each country would be ignored in assigning the country ranks.

And, there’s a catch: the individual sailors who get their countries qualified during the ISAF or class worlds may not be the sailors who get to sail in the Olympics for their countries. It all depends on how the countries run their qualification systems. For example, Hungary wasn’t qualified via the ISAF Worlds, but was qualified by a different Hungarian sailor during the Laser Worlds and that sailor was the one chosen to represent his country.

How does all this work in practice?

Let’s use the Laser full-rig (single-handed boat for men; i.e., crew of one). With only one competitor on the boat, the chances of mutiny and crew desertion are somewhat reduced in class events.

Most countries were qualified in 2007 at the ISAF World Championships in Cascais, Portugal. The target quota for the 2008 Olympics was to have 40 full-rig Lasers competing. (Women sailed the radial rig and were qualified separately and are a separate event in the Olympics.) The ISAF Worlds would qualify 30 countries. China, as the Olympic host, was guaranteed a spot. Although more than 70 Lasers competed, only 32 countries were represented, so each country’s chances of getting qualified were excellent.

Africa – 1 country entered, 1 sailor, 1 country qualified

North America – 2 countries entered, 8 sailors, 2 countries qualified

South America – 4 countries entered, 5 sailors, 4 countries qualified

Asia – 2 countries entered, 2 sailors, host country automatically qualified

Oceania – 2 countries entered, 7 sailors, 2 countries qualified

Europe – 21 countries entered, 51 sailors, 20 countries qualified

Hungary and Japan didn’t make the cut, although they subsequently were among the ten countries qualified at the Laser Worlds in Terrigal, Australia, in February of 2008. Later on, IOC/ISAF dipped down to choose a couple more countries (US Virgin Islands and Barbados).

All in all, only a handful of countries at the Laser Worlds didn’t manage to qualify: Serbia, Trinidad, Montenegro, Moldova, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe.

For reasons unknown to me, Germany qualified very strongly to field a Laser entry during the ISAF Worlds, but didn’t wind up at the Beijing Olympics.

So why do we care and what does this have to do with getting more diversity?

My observations and conclusions:

(1) You can’t go if you don’t play. Countries that got sailors to the ISAF Worlds had an excellent chance of getting qualified. Yet, only about 15% of Olympic countries (32) sent a sailor to the men’s Laser championships at the ISAF Worlds and only about 20% of Olympic countries (43) sent sailors to the Laser Worlds in Australia.

(2) Depth pays: Although each country can have only one slot per Olympic event, a deep field of able sailors can help their country’s chances of getting qualified. If one sailor has a bad regatta or some sort of disaster, another can take up the slack. Countries that failed to be qualified invariably had only one sailor entered in a qualifier. Of course, powerful sailing countries tend to have lots of sailors with high ISAF rankings and tend to garner lots of invites to the ISAF Worlds.

(3) Location, location, location: Most countries were qualified at the ISAF Worlds held in Portugal. Two-thirds of the sailors and countries were European and most of the rest were from the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Asia, Africa, and the rest of the western hemisphere had only 8 sailors representing 7 countries. Interestingly, the previous pre-Olympics ISAF Worlds had been held in Cadiz, Spain – not exactly very far from Portugal. More diversity is likely to occur when the crucial pre-Olympic ISAF Worlds are held in places such as Africa, South America, or South Asia.

(4) Ultimately, the sailing world and members of each Olympic class will have to decide whether it’s important to develop each Olympic sailing class in countries where the class is under-represented (or wholly absent, despite basic potential within a country).


At 8:17 AM, August 16, 2008, Anonymous tillerman said...

Fascinating. There's a bit of a chicken and egg situation here too. If, for example, there were 60 Laser slots at the Olympics then maybe more countries would attend the qualifying Worlds events in order to secure one of those spots, and maybe more young kids living on small island nations or in obscure former Soviet republics would have Olympic dreams and take up Lasering.

There's a whole other way of looking at this too. If instead of geographical diversity you actually want the best sailors in the world at the Olympics, then you would have to scrap the whole one sailor per country per event rule.

At 6:53 AM, August 17, 2008, Anonymous tillerman said...

I think I'm right in saying that the next ISAF Worlds in 2011 will be held in Perth/Fremantle Western Australia.


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