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World Rowing
FISA's Hard Look at Rowing's Future
Changes in the Olympics and World Championships program are virtually assured
March 9, 2016
Oli Rosenbladt,

With Rio 2016 five months out, FISA and the IOC are already looking at Tokyo 2020

On the heels of FISA's release of the summary of the recent "National Federations Conferences" on March 6 in London, folks in the rowing world zeroed in on the most visible "pillar" in FISA's strategic direction, which is to "retain a strong position in the Olympic Movement." As evidenced by the strong reactions it elicited, this innocuous phrase hits way above its weight class (so to speak), and definitely telegraphs the fact that keeping rowing intact as an Olympic sport is likely to involve some pretty serious changes.

"An important factor in retaining a strong position in the Olympic Movement is the alignment of FISA's strategy with the 40 Olympic Agenda 2020 recommendations that were adopted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014," stated the FISA release, and without running down the full 40 recommendations from IOC's Agenda 2020 (you can find the full IOC document here) and their potential impacts on rowing, it's clear that FISA and the rowing world at large are going to need to stomach bigger changes in the coming years.

The crux is this: the Olympics are moving away from a sports-based program to an events-based program, which will cap the number of events across the entire Olympics. Additionally, the IOC has adopted a gender equality mandate that all Olympic sports have exactly 50% male/50% female participation; Olympic rowing currently stands at 60% male/40% female.

With rowing's position as one of the founding Olympic sports, as well as our own (occasionally well-founded) perception within the sport that rowing is being squeezed, the discussion about adding & subtracting Olympics events is likely to be contentious and even brutal - as mentioned above, in some quarters, it already is.

Olympic Changes

Roughly speaking, FISA has identified three potential changes to the Olympic events schedule to accomplish this tightrope walk of balancing boats and bodies:

  • Proposal 1: Add W4- (13 entries) remove LM4-, reduce LM2x to 18 entries (from 20), expand W4x to 10 entries (from 7), reduce LW2x to 18 entries (also from 20)

  • Proposal 2: Add LM1x and LW1x (34 entries each), remove LM4- and M4-, expand W1x and M1x to 34 entries each (from 32), expand M4x and W4x to 13 entries (from 7)

  • Proposal 3: Add W4- (7 entries), LM1x and LW1x (34 entries each), remove LM4-, M2x and W2x, expand M4x and W4x to 13 entries (from 7)

Each of these proposals leads to identical numbers of women's and men's entries, athletes, and crews in the regatta.

In short, the LM4- seems doomed after appearing in six Olympiads; scullers have reason to be optimistic; and the bumping of some entry numbers and/or addition of the Light Singles would seem to open the Olympic regatta to countries that might not ordinarily qualify for the Olympics in rowing.

Additionally, a proposal also discussed at the London meeting involves limiting the amount of crews any given country could qualify for the Olympics in a given year, with caps of 10 or 12 events being discussed.

To put it bluntly, there is seemingly no amount of juggling the numbers that would accomplish the IOC-mandated 50/50 balance between men and women, either in terms of events or athletes, without even iconic and cherished events like the M4- or the LM4- being considered for the axe.

Is Rio the end of the line for the LM4-, after just six Olympiads?
Is Rio the end of the line for the LM4-, after just six Olympiads?

World Championships Changes

Of course, changing the Olympic program would also have ramifications for the World Championships (Senior, Junior, U23 and Adaptive). Conceivably we could see further events fall out of international competition (as the Men's Lightweight 8+ did this past fall), and possibly at an accelerated rate, as FISA is considering removing BOTH the given men's and women's events if an event should be subject to FISA's "natural death" rule for event removal. In other words, we could see a situation where the lightweight men's quad falls below the removal threshold, which would then lead to the removal of the Men's AND the Women's Lightweight Quad events from the WCH program.

As with the changes to the Olympic program, FISA has provided potential changes for the World Championships program; while we won't go into the details here, the full list of changes can be found in the FISA document here. As a departure from past event-by-event discussions (which could be seen as favoring certain countries or constituencies), FISA has proposed that voting for the Worlds programs be achieved via "a complete block vote on all WCH boat classes, not individual boats."

Beyond events, the conference addressed tweaks in sponsorship and advertising rules, posited entry caps and/or qualification requirements for World Championships, proposed changes to the progressions, considered changing the course distance to accommodate shorter/smaller bodies of water, eliminating averaging for lightweights, and discussed lengthening the adaptive racing at Worlds to the same length as the able-bodied athletes to reduce the logistical challenge of running two race distances at the same regatta.

2016 is a pivotal year for FISA, indeed (image:
2016 is a pivotal year for FISA, indeed (image:

What Does It All Mean?

All of this is heavy duty, for sure, and if you are a coxswain or a lightweight, these proposals can be a sobering read. To be fair, at this stage all of these changes are being discussed as proposals, and FISA has made it clear that they will solicit input from all FISA member nations, which number 148 as of 2015.

The timeline for making these decisions is this: the IOC will finalize events for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the fall of 2017. All Olympic sports federations, including FISA, will be required to submit their (fully Agenda 2020 compliant) plan for the 2020 Olympics at that time. To meet the IOC's deadline, the final discussions and votes to adopt the changes to Olympic rowing and the World Championships programs will occur at the FISA Extraordinary Congress in February, 2017, or eleven months from now.

Beyond the lamentations over lost events and changes to rowing's position in the Olympics, which are without a doubt rowing's global showcase, it's worth noting that in an age where more and more of what sports actually do is dictated by money, access (to venues, athletes, markets, and otherwise), and "optics," this is a conversation rowing will not be able to avoid.

Rowing is an expensive sport, globally limited in scope and cachet compared to some other sports, and, as we all know, has a spectator problem--consider that, over the eight days of the World Championships in Aiguebelette last summer, a grand total of 35,500 people came out to see the best rowers in the world do their thing – and a large number of them watched the racing on the jumbotrons away from the water.

By contrast, that figure is only about 30% of the 108,975 people who went to Buckeye stadium on November 21st this past fall to watch the Ohio State - Michigan State football game; that's about as stark as those numbers get. Rowing has plenty of room to grow. Determining the direction of that growth, however, will not be easy.

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Log in to comment
03/17/2016  9:35:29 PM
Back in the 1990s, the Olympic "movement" was pressing on cycling to get rid of "boring" (non-TV-rating-friendly) events. So cycling lost the 100 km team time trial, one of the toughest events in the sport and probably the best measure of a national program's depth. I think it persisted at Worlds for a little while, then died, a casualty of the principle that no non-Olympic event warranted a serious investment from a national program. I'm with bjukic@clarkson: Rowing should give some serious thought, at least, to telling the "movement" to go to hell. I don't expect a lot of folk to like this idea. Just sayin'.

03/12/2016  10:19:30 PM
Rowperfect has been approached by a group seeking views on this proposal. 

A survey has been started to canvas views about which events should be in the Olympics and which should not. The survey includes the option for you to state an alternative to the three FISA proposals above.

I suspect this has come out of that stronghold of lightweight mens rowing, Denmark. Help them by sharing the link.

Bernhard 1966
03/12/2016  4:41:29 PM
2 people like this
I don't understand why rowing / FISA is not developing a plan for themselves. Their Agenda 2020 (hahaha). Get all boat classes in 1x,2x,4x,2-,4-,8+ for all 4 categories (light,open,men,women). We need to develop our sport and not running behind all those Agendas and living in a constant fear to get cut from something. It is our sport and not Mr. Bach or Mr. next IOC. My idea would be a) after the year of the Olympics every Club or federation can enter at the WorldCups, the national federations have to sort out who is eligible to enter, a national federation never can stop a club entering at the WorldCup if there is only none or one entries of the federation. After the WorldCup season the national federations can name their boats for the WorldChampionships, if the national federation does not enter a boat from their country and a club want to enter, the federation MUST allow that-it can not be that national federations have to right to deny entries - and these happen all over the world. 2nd year after the Olympics same procedure. 3rd year same procedure but the top 12 boats qualify in each boatclass directly for the OG. 3 spots are reserved for South America, Asia and Africa - if one of those continents (nations) place 12 or better they automaticly have a second spot for the games and the slowest boat from either NorthAmerica / Europe or New Zealand/Australia is not qualified. And in the Olympic year - we have 24 races with each 12 boats and also have a FISA organized Club WorldChampionship in which each country can send 2 clubs to the "Champion League" / Club WorldChampionships. Of course all numbers here which I suggest could be modified .... but at least rowing would have a Vision ... their own "Agenda 2020" and from this we could move forward to the IOC .... :-)

[email protected]
03/11/2016  3:50:45 PM
1 people like this
It is sad to see the lightweight sweep rowing being dealt this blow. 2012 ML 4- London Final is one of the all time classics in any event in any Olympic sport. I guess more room has to be made for BMX and skateboard events. It may just happen that at some point the original pure Olympic sports may decide to form their own organization and start running an alternative world-wide multi-sport events in the true Olympic spirit, as the corporate Olympics gradually morph into X-games with only track and swimming remaining in the fold.

03/17/2016  9:40:11 PM
Gymnastics will also stay, and basketball and tennis, because the flying pixies and the famous pros make for boffo box-office. A renegade retro-Olympic movement for the original Oly sports could be a great thing.

03/10/2016  11:57:58 AM
2 people like this
All these options seem too much like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Maybe this is a good opportunity for rowing to step back and re-evaluate its involvement in the Olympics: (1) Perhaps hold preliminary rounds elsewhere and have only Final A at the Olympics. This would open up athlete slots so that ALL of rowing's events could be included. The very nature of rowing is different boat sizes, weight classes, genders. Gender equality (a worthy goal!) could be attained by ADDING women's events rather than SUBTRACTING men's classes. (2) Is it in rowing's best interest to be in the Olympics at all? Even the present system splits rowing into two "levels" of events and adds a four-year cycle. The Olympics have become an increasingly top heavy, unwieldy, political, and corruption-riddled behemoth. Leaving us this year with a medically questionable location lacking seating for viewing rowing (subtracting the floating stands and assigned seating). This promotes rowing?

03/11/2016  10:50:53 AM
1 people like this
Well said Larz. I'm not sure why rowing feels the need to kowtow to the needs of an organization that with every given year becomes more of a worldwide joke.

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