INTRO: Kiteboarding getting into the Olympics is a good thing, right? Two-time World Champion, Mark Shinn, argues the case in his regular column
WORDS: Mark Shinn
Unless you live on a remote island with no internet coverage you can't have failed to discover that kiteboarding has been selected by the ISAF for inclusion in the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio. I didn't do the homework, but I am reasonably willing to bet that this is one of the fastest entries of a sport into the Olympics in recent years. It's certainly a fantastic achievement and a testament to both the diversity of our sport and the hard work of some of the people involved. I sat in the founding meeting of the IKA some years back (which, ironically, was founded in order to ratify the kiteboarding world speed records, not campaign for Olympic inclusion) and I honestly didn't think this day would come.
As someone who has dedicated the last 14 years of his life to kiteboarding, I feel as though I should be celebrating, yet somehow I have a sense of trepidation. Let me explain - it's quite complicated - and, although I will try to get everything correct, please excuse me if I make some small errors. The selection of sports to be included in the Olympics is made by the IOC (International Olympic Committee). Obviously they can't run every sport, so they delegate each sport to a governing body, in the case of sailing: ISAF. IOC tell ISAF that they have 'X' number of gold medals to award and that they must be distributed equally between men and women. ISAF don't have the man-power to run everything in each class of vessel so they then look to the class associations for each boat, such as the Laser class, the 49er class the RSX windsurfer class etc. and for the kiteboarding class - the IKA. These associations make their presentations to the ISAF about why they think should be selected as an Olympic class and then ISAF decide by vote which ones are in.
When the vote was counted in May and kiteboarding had accumulated more votes than windsurfing, the ISAF decided to drop windsurfing in favour of kiteboarding. It's not my place to judge the right and wrongs of this as I'm not aware of everything that the voting ISAF members are, but I would be lying if I didn't say I find the decision curious to say the least. If you judge the value of a class by visual excitement and marketability, then surely both sports should be in. If you judge the value of a class by participants around the world, then both sports should surely be once again. It's a really harsh blow for some dedicated windsurfers, but it's not the end of the sport (as some Olympic windsurfers have publicly claimed). I have windsurfed for the last 20 years and have never set foot on an Olympic class board and haven't even seen an Olympic RSX class board in the flesh in the last 15 years. There will be a huge drop in funding as the national sailing bodies cease to invest in the classes, however this funding never reached the normal rider anyway.
But this is where I come to my true concerns - the money. While the ISAF have selected kiteboarding as an Olympic class, what few of you may realise is that they didn't actually specify what that class is, and they won't be doing so until November 2012. Until now kite racing has been developed on a box rule, meaning that your board has to fit into a box of certain dimensions (width, length and thickness), the amount of fin area is controlled, as is board weight and the board has to be part of a serial production (I believe meaning that at least 50 identical units have been produced).
This is the rule the IKA formed the class with and is the rule the association has been staunchly defending for its future. The ISAF, however, has a history of selecting one design classes and, come November, they could easily select this approach again. In large worldwide sailboat fleets One Design makes a certain kind of sense. You can buy a Laser anywhere in the world and, in theory, you have the same boat as the World Champion (although of course every sailor will tell you that is simply not the case. There are 'good ones' and 'not so good' ones!). There are also plenty of classes to choose from, so if you get too big and heavy for a Laser you can go sail the Olympic Finn or something else.
Olympic windsurfing never had this luxury and has been a One Design class from the beginning. ISAF insist that by maintaining a One Design rule the playing field is kept level and financial investment in gear plays a minimal part in the results. To be Olympic windsurfing gold medallist you need an amazing amount of funding and to be light as a feather as most of the events are held in light wind conditions. Physics dictates that given the same size board and sail, the planing 58 kilo rider is always going to beat the sinking 95 kilo rider. Ever wondered why the World Champions of PWA World Tour racing never competed in the Olympics? You have your answer. Few other sports limit their athletes with One Design classes, from cycling and horse riding to skiing etc. Why do the ISAF feel the need to do so? Could politics be involved? Imagine you're a manufacturer and you successfully manage to lobby the ISAF into selecting your material as the Olympic One Design choice; not only have you guaranteed your product life cycle for the next four to eight years, but you've also captured a completely captivated world-wide market. Anyone with Olympic aspirations has to buy your gear and you can be sure there won't be many special discounts. Don't want to pay the price? Don't go to the Olympics, then!
You can be sure that directly after the kiteboarding's Olympic announcement that more than one major brand will have started to develop the concept of their own One Design class of race equipment in the hope of securing the goose that lays the golden eggs. What about other manufacturers involved in kiteboarding? Until now those with an interest in racing invest in material development and team riders to both test the gear and to prove its value in racing. Yes, the athletes have outside funding sources too but, in large parts, they're supported by the industry itself. Bring in the One Design class and where does the motivation to sponsor a rider or develop the gear go? Why spend big money when, ultimately, anyone that shows real talent is, without a shadow of a doubt, going to end up on a competitor's gear?
It's a tricky subject, but I feel I have the right to speak because I firmly believe that kiteboarding has a right to be in the Olympics; that it can and will make a fantastic contribution to the games; that being a part of the Olympics can increase the public awareness of our sport and that the increased awareness and sense of credibility will bring advantages to all other aspects of the sport. However, I also have this terrible sense of foreboding that, should we go down the One Design route, the exclusion of windsurfing from the Olympics could cause the death of kiteboard racing as we know it. How ironic would that be?Find more on Mark and his boards at: