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What sets the Olympics apart in sport

Published on April 9th, 2018

In May, World Sailing will be voting on the type of events to be held at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. With a directive from the International Olympic Committee to achieve gender equality at an event and athlete level, to increase the number of mixed events, and to improve the showcase of Sailing, the Finn class is in the cross hairs.

First introduced at the Helsinki 1952 Games, the Finn is the oldest event on the Sailing Program, and the only event for plus-sized people. Male people.

In this report by Jacopo Valentino, he details how this pivotal moment for the Finn is a reflection of how the Olympic Movement has lost its way.

It has been more than 20 years since I have boarded a dinghy, and even then I was not even near Olympic status. But, when I see footage of Finn competition, my heart goes faster and forgotten emotions come life anew.

I can almost feel the hull sliding and trembling as the boat runs the waves. I can sense the herculean effort to keep her (the boat) straight, to keep her under control despite the wind, the speed, the waves. Spray hitting hard on your face while you try to steady the boat and control your pulse, keep your breath.

Always on the verge between the exhilarating power and speed that will make you gain positions and the mistake that will lead to a capsize. Not even an inch between victory and disaster. A controlled explosion of emotion. What a challenge! What a pride! What a defiance!

Singlehandedly defying the rough sea and the other sailors at the same time. In the most physically demanding boat of all.

But then my mind returns to those fearless bureaucrats from World Sailing and the IOC that are in the process of kicking the Finn out of the Olympic Games.

I would actually dismiss this piece of news as nonsense, if I had not had the displeasure of reading to some detail the minutes and the documents supporting the decision… a patchwork of “bureaucratese” lingo mixing up fuzzy arguments such as gender equality, a veiled threat from the IOC of cutting events and medals, and a vague fear of losing audience.

Audience? What audience? Apart from a brief stint of heated popularity for the America´s Cup several years ago, sailing has never been a spectator´s sports, let alone commanding any level of sizeable audience.

But this is the situation of most of Olympic sports. Actually, that is almost a trademark of the Olympics: to bring visibility to the “other sports” – the ones that do not sell ads every day on television like football, soccer, basketball or tennis. That is, in my opinion, the very charm of the Olympics.

Yet, now the IOC is apparently set on competing with the X Games or the OFF channel. For those who are not familiar with OFF, this is the broadcast channel where you can see, at any time, an endless movement of surfing, gliding, flying, rolling, and any sort of flow-like movement. All melted in a super-cool soundtrack.

Well, if the IOC is set to compete in this market, I believe they are in for a fiasco. Not only because there is a basic difference between “flow” sports and essentially agonistic sports, but also because the market drivers are completely different. We are talking about a mix of lysergic images and circus-like stunts that catch the eye.

The X Games and the OFF channel are typically used as background entertainment in bars, lounges, and waiting rooms because of that. And you can watch a reprise of the X Games from last year with the same interest – if you have not seen it before.

The Olympic Games is about watching a live (or shortly delayed) event to see who has come first, jumped higher, or mastered the most perfect routine. Most Olympic sports are not that spectacular. At least not always or for the average taste. And unless the IOC changes all Olympic sports to match jumping with bikes over flaming barrels, they will never come close to the aesthetics and coolness of the X Games.

But they could lose the essence of the Olympics in the attempt. And I am not talking about the competitive, self-perfecting ideal of Citius, Altius, Fortius. I am talking about the feat of integrating diversity under a unified ideal. And again, I am not taking of the competing nations, representing different cultures, with their worth and pride. I am talking of the different forms of training, self-challenging, and competing that go under the definition of sports.

Many different sports, all in equal standing. Gold for gold. Each sport tradition bringing with it its athletes, its fans, but also its tradition, its unique culture of values and emotions. This is the key ingredient for diversity: different traditions unified under the common flag of human endeavor. This, in my view is the beauty and the essence of the Olympic tradition. Not a fabricated TV show. Not a parade of the latest novelty. Not a circus of amazement and wonders.

If a show must be, let it be (as it has always been) a show of the will to compete and to excel in all the different forms that our history and creativity has begot. Because different challenges appeal to different people, each with their unique set of physical and mental skills.

Men and women are born in different shapes and sizes, but those who come to the Olympics burn a similar fire inside. It is this inner fire that gives meaning to the Olympic pyre, just as the joined rings are also a symbol of the joining of all those separate sports and traditions.

Not a petty thing for one of these traditions to become Olympic. It is the recognition of its importance as a standing tradition and as a living activity. All its members and fans now invited to take part in this beautiful unifying ideal. And a sad thing for a sport to lose its Olympic status. A sign that it no longer represents that fighting spirits, that it no longer has the capacity to excite and evoke emotion. A sad sign of rebuttal and decadence.

And indeed it will be a sad day when the Finn is no longer Olympic. When those huge, strong and fit sailors will have to find a different game; or be left out of the Olympic dream. Sad for the Finn and the Finn people, for sure. Sad but not final as when I see images of Finn competition, I see super athletes battling an epic a battle.

I see young men pitched against the sea and against the best sailors of the lot. I see challenge and I see tradition and I see emotion. Plenty of it. No dying sport here. If this is not Olympic material, well… it will be sad… for the Olympics!

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