The Impact of the Mixed Event Initiative

Published on January 31st, 2019

The International 470 Class began with the 1976 Olympics as an open format two-person dinghy event wherein men and women could compete together, in any type of combination, but a change occurred in 1988 to offer Olympic events specifically for men only and women only. This fostered growth for women in the Class as championship events fostered titles for both genders.

But change is on the horizon again, as the direction by the International Olympic Committee is for each Olympic sport to balance medals and participation for men and women, and to have mixed events in that pursuit.

Amid the 10 Sailing medals, that meant for hard decisions, one of which is to convert these two 2-person dinghy events into one mixed gender competition. While the decision to balance gender at the Olympics will increase the overall number of women competing at the Games, the trickle down for the 470 Class could be significant.

Luke Patience (GBR), now 32 years and competing in what he predicts is his final Olympic campaign for the Tokyo 2020 Games, is a longtime competitor in the 470 Class, having gained bronze over a decade ago at the Junior Worlds and silver at the London 2012 Games. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checked in with Luke for his thoughts:

While the IOC wants to boost the participation of women in the Olympics, will this shift for the 470 Class do the opposite?

The 470 Class has done a reasonably good job over the years to keep the boat in the Olympics, which has been a great thing for the Class, but now it comes at a cost of going mixed. The reason I say it comes at a cost is not because of any reason that maybe men and women don’t want to sail together per se, but I expect it to reduce participation numbers as suddenly we merge it all into one. I don’t anticipate one plus one equaling two.

As for the overall decreasing participation of women, it’s hard to know at this stage. I’m not really strongly minded whether men and women should or should not sail together. I’m indifferent, but I do believe that most of the Olympic sports are not mixed, whatever the sport is. There are some, but most are not. So we join a minority, and my worry is I’m not sure if there’s a really term goal with what’s happening with the sport.

So when you look outside the 470s, I’m not sure that anyone’s really in control. I don’t mean people are doing a bad job. I purely mean, maybe the IOC is making demands that are hard to upkeep, perhaps. Maybe World Sailing is finding it hard to please both the sailors and please the IOC. In fact, I’m sure they’re finding it hard to please both sides. They’ve not got an easy job. I don’t think anyone’s been acting foolishly. It’s just a hard situation to fulfill the IOC demands.

What I do know as a sailor is how the vast majority of people don’t want it to go mixed. And that’s speaking as an athlete and that’s hearing what most athletes are saying.

When the mixed multihull event was introduced for Rio 2016, due to the strength and athleticism needed for the crew, it was believed how men would fit that role and women would helm. However, it was found in most cases, men were more adept to helm so women are now a bit overmatched in the crew role. How would you see it for the 470 Class?

I think it depends on when free pumping is allowed. If it stays low as it is presently, which is at eight knots, then men will crew. I hope I’m not sounding sexist but, generally speaking, the male crews are heavier and stronger than the female crews, therefore they’re going to be able to pump the boat harder.

However, if they raise the free pumping wind limit, it’s going to reduce the ability to pump that early in the wind range, so I think it will even things out. If was a betting man, if the rule stays as is, I think female skippers and male crews will be a better combo. But if they increase the wind limit on when free pumping is permitted, you might find it better to have a stronger helm.

As a senior member of the esteemed British Sailing Team, any general view from the mountain?

I will say is that sailing is such an awesome sport for a million reasons, having maintained such an old game to remain thriving today. It came as transport once upon a time and now we’re racing in boats and having good fun.

I know our carbon footprint isn’t perfect but we still use wind power to sail our wee boats round the ocean. It’s so cool. It has a global interest. It’s both leisurely and for competition, and, ultimately, whatever World Sailing can do to keep this sport alive and keep it moving is a great thing.

I hope there remains a place for older boats like the 470 as well as new generation of fast and foiling boats. It is a healthy range which respects the diverse skills needed to master each. It’s such a wonderful sport for that so I hope they continue to keep these old dinosaurs in the Olympics. They might be slow, but man are they a rewarding boat to conquer.

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