Moving Rowing Forward: Here's How FISA Should Change The Olympic Rowing Regatta for 2020

What does the future of Olympic rowing look like?

As if the Rio Olympics, now less than six months away, didn’t present enough challenges for FISA, it has become increasingly clear that much will change in international rowing after the last medals are awarded at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas.

FISA has two key mandates from the International Olympic Committee to take on as they look to shape the next quadrennial: A requirement for gender equality, and a limitation on the number of athletes allowed in the Olympic contingent.

So far, less focus has been given to the gains for women, and more to what is lost for men.In Rio, fourteen events will be held, eight for men and six for women. 550 athletes will contest these events. The challenge given to FISA for the 2020 Olympics will be to achieve gender equality without increasing the size of this contingent. While gender equality is undoubtedly a significant step forward, and an overdue one at that, international rowing now faces a similar dilemma to that which collegiate athletics experienced in reacting to Title IX. With budget concerns and competition for television revenue creating pressure, growth at the Olympic level is a zero sum proposition. So far, less focus has been given to the gains for women, and more to what is lost for men. Aside from addressing the anachronism that fewer women have the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games, the regatta will be improved as it begins to mirror the fastest growing segment of the sport. This should be a significant part of the story, but it hasn’t been to date.

It’s unfortunate that growth in equality and accessibility must come with fewer opportunities for men, but the reality is that the sport must make hard decisions. Each one of the three alternatives identified by FISA strikes at cherished events in the Olympic program, making the situation all the more difficult. The boat classes that face possible elimination in the three proposals are the LM4-, M4-, M2x, and W2x, with possible additions to include the W4-, LM1x, and LW1x. Each proposal adjusts the amount of entries for each boat class to help achieve the 550 athlete target.

What should be considered is the removal of the eight as a stand-alone event.In particular, the elimination of the M4- and LM4- are the most troubling for fans of rowing. Some of the best stories in recent rowing history have come from the M4-, Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, and the Oarsome Foursome among others, and many countries have prioritized that boat class, which has made it one of the best from a spectator standpoint. Similar objections exist for the LM4-, with South Africa’s victory in 2012 and the event’s competitiveness as compelling reasons for its continued place in the Olympic regatta.

However, the biggest issue to making the numbers work is the eight, though not one of the FISA proposals addresses it. Cumulatively, the men’s and women’s eights account for almost a quarter of the total athlete contingent, and are easily the least accessible by developing nations. Yet, the eights are often the most exciting, and historically the most relevant. What then, is the way forward?

What should be considered, if it hasn’t been already, is the removal of the eight as a stand-alone event. Both events should be contested exclusively, with the exception of the coxswains, by athletes that race in other boat classes. This makes it easier for countries with smaller contingents to compete, and greatly increases the events’ marketability. This type of event creates much the same interest as swimming or running relays, where spectators get to see the best in the world compete against each other in a different context—can there be any doubt that a relay that includes Michael Phelps, or Allyson Felix, is of more interest to the viewing public? A further argument for this arrangement is that some rowing federations are already doing this at the Olympic level, as will be the case with New Zealand’s women’s eight this summer (Rebecca Scown and Genevieve Behrent are also racing in the women’s pair).

This could shift the eights from being the event with the least amount of depth to one with the most. The Head Of The Charles, though in a different format, has already shown the draw of ‘All-Star’ eights, particularly as a way to attract the interest of casual or even non-rowing spectators.

The rest of the Olympic program, at least in terms of the athlete contingent, falls quickly into line, with the same events—four sculling and four sweep—offered for men and women.

Sculling Entries/Athletes Sweep Entries/Athletes
1x 64/642- 24/48
2x 24/484- 24/96
4x 24/968+ 24/24 (Coxswains)
L2x 36/72L4- 24/96

One significant issue remains, though: what do about the lightweight events?

Despite the event’s competitiveness, the LM4- has been targeted for replacement because of the view that the boat class isn’t accessible enough for smaller countries. This departs from FISA’s mandate to grow the sport internationally, and has led to the idea that the LM1x and LW1x are preferable alternatives. While there isn’t an economic argument to be made here, as finding and supporting one athlete as opposed to four is clearly easier, there are the issues of watchability and competitiveness to consider.

It’s time for FISA to get creative. Tradition must be honored and encouraged, but only the best of the sport should be maintained.The four is a faster, more competitive boat class that frequently sees closer races when compared to the lightweight, and even heavyweight, singles. And despite the valid economic arguments, the London Olympics did see the first rowing gold medal by a black African rower, Sizwe Lawrence Ndlovu, in the lightweight four. Perhaps this result, and a renewed commitment to lightweight fours for men and women, can be justified and explained by the fact that sweep rowing may be an easier medium to introduce the sport to large groups. With the rise of women’s collegiate rowing, in the United States and now in the United Kingdom, more women from smaller countries have the potential of being recruited and trained in sweep rowing. This perhaps makes it easier for developing countries, not harder.

Given how few opportunities there are for lightweight women, and how often it seems good athletes miss selection (Zoe McBride of New Zealand comes to mind) for the LW2x, it seems reasonable to expect that the athletes who had been competing for the LW4x and LW1x could shift into the LW4- to make the event very compelling by 2020 or 2024.

It’s time for FISA to get creative. Tradition must be honored and encouraged, but only the best of the sport should be maintained. The 2020 Olympic Regatta will be a more inclusive and equitable event, with women contesting the same events as their male counterparts for the first time. However, the ultimate driver for any Olympic sport is television revenue, and FISA cannot neglect the sport’s watchability in its quest to make the sport accessible.

-Erinn McMahan

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