Monday, May 14, 2012

Kiteboarding Replaces Windsurfing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil: Bad Politics Still Reign Supreme

Last week, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) voted kiteboarding into the 2016 Olympics, at the expense of RS:X Olympic windsurfing.  The highly controversial decision is generating an international uproar from sailors across the globe.  The decision represents yet another example of how removed sailing politicians are from actual sailors, and is one of the worst in the history of Olympic sailing, a history punctuated by bad politics.  The decision was based on one opinion-based report and test event attended only by kiteboard representatives, and a failure on the part of the RS:X class leadership and other international sailing federations to assume that the success of international windsurfing would speak for itself, and to misread how intent ISAF was to gain publicity for the 2016 Olympic quadrennium.

After a week of furor, sailors unearthed many examples of apathetic and poor ISAF politics.  Of course, many of the ISAF delegates voted for kiting unconcerned about the wishes of actual Olympic sailors, but in their own self-interest.  However, several evidences conclude that many countries' delegates made less than informed decisions.  The first was erroneous reporting by participants in kiteboarding's trial event.  Kiteboarding conducted one trial event held to coincide with one of the Olympic selection events for windsurfing, the RS:X World Championships in Cadiz, Spain.  The concluding report was an opinion-based document unrepresentative of the windsurfers, the actual group affected by the outcome of the trials.  Better and unbiased research needed to be performed before the actual vote.

ISAF botched the voting process, and certain groups were actually misrepresented or under-represented.  ISAF's events committee evaluated both windsurfing and kiteboarding, and voted for windsurfing before the final vote at last week's ISAF meeting. Boards magazine questioned RS:X class secretary Rory Ramsden about this decision, and he reported, "The specialist events committee were the first to discuss the decision of windsurfing or kitesurfing to be taken to the next Olympics. Here, the votes were 14 for RS:X men, and two against (Australia and the USA), and for RS:X women there were 15 votes for and again, two against. So, there was a very clear vote in favour of keeping windsurfing, and a great recommendation to ISAF to keep RS:X. I was confident that when we walked into the council chamber that we had a minimum of 21 votes for windsurfing, with 15 against, which is a comfortable majority.  But the actual vote was 19 for kite, and 17 for windsurfing."

The voting process also confused ISAF delegates and influenced their votes.  Most notably, the Spanish delegate voted for kiteboarding.  Because Spain has one of the world's strongest Olympic windsurfing program, evidenced by their world champion women's competitors Marina Alabau and Blanca Manchon, and no kite racing as of yet, the Spanish delegate's vote was a jaw-dropping standout. During the meeting, the Spanish delegate also represented the delegate from Portugal, who favored windsurfing but did not attend. Therefore, the Spanish delegate gave two votes for kiteboarding.  It later came out that he made a mistake when he voted for kites, and in fact hoped to vote for windsurfing.  A translation of a statement made by the Royal Spanish Sailing Federation states, "Spain supported and is supporting maintaining windsurfing (RS:X) in the 2016 Olympics.  In fact, during the recent years RFEV has heavily invested in the development of future windsurfing promises...the current Spanish Olympic sailing team has some of the best windsurfers in the world that are serious contenders for a medal both at the previous Olympics and the next ones this summer...Despite this, at the last moment the Spanish representative in the ISAF council gave his vote for the kite, an error caused by the confusion of the voting system.  The federation president, Gerardo Pombo, takes responsibility for his error and wants to apologize to all Spanish windsurfers."

In addition to delegates' confusion, Asian countries, heavily invested in Olympic windsurfing, were under-represented at the time of voting.  This may have been a result of uncertainty over when the actual vote would take place:  Rory Ramsden quoted, "There was a big discussion about whether to make the decision now, or wait until November. A clear majority voted for the decision to be made now to give everyone the maximum amount of time to plan their campaigns."  The only Asian countries to vote included Japan, a strong supporter of RS:X, and Singapore and India, countries not invested in Olympic sailing.  China, Hong Kong, and Korea, all countries with developed programs in Olympic windsurfing, missed out on the opportunity to vote.  Barbara Kendall, multiple Olympic medalist in women's windsurfing from New Zealand and International Olympic Committee representative, believed that a lack of Asian representation on the voting committee pointed to a major flaw with ISAF's procedure for the selection of kiteboarding. "Due diligence wasn't done, and when you're an organization responsible for a lot of money and you do make changes, that is absolutely essential. From what's been seen it hasn't been done, [and] ISAF loses so much credibility; it's quite sad," she stated to the New Zealand Herald.

Regardless of outcome, it is apparent that ISAF's Olympic class selection process needs revision and a clear set of rules to follow.  ISAF showed a poor representation and understanding of two board sports that are exciting and fun, and tarnished sailors' simple enjoyment of both sports with bad politics.  Windsurfing and kiting can easily co-exist, and in communities where both already do so, such as at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, both windsurfers and kiteboarders show enthusiasm, a positive attitude, great respect, and even crossing over among both sports.

Most Olympic windsurfers, including me, enjoy kiteboarding and would like to welcome kites into the Olympics, but not at the expense of our own sport.  Kites are less than ready to be in the 2016 Olympics for a variety of reasons, but ISAF politicians and the IKA glossed over many issues and refused to do the right thing:  find a solution to introduce kiting before the 2016 quad, allow it to become organized globally, and add it to the 2020 roster of Olympic events.  There may be other, equally as viable, solutions to the problem for the 2016 quad that can provide an opportunity for both kiteboarding and windsurfing to compete at the Olympic Games. 

Windsurfers and kiteboards prepare for a start in San Francisco, California, USA.

What does ISAF's decision mean for the lives of many windsurfers?  Everyone is very disappointed that the ISAF politicians didn't make an informed decision, but we are all adaptable.  If our effort to save windsurfing doesn't come to fruition, Olympic windsurfing will be the best thing that ever happened to the sport of kiteboarding.  It will be the windsurfers who create the equipment, the structure, and the development of the kiteboarding class.  And, it will be Olympic windsurfers who rise to the top of the sport. 

Personally, ISAF's decision is devastating.  I was already laying the structure for my 2016 Olympic campaign, and it looks like my plans will change drastically.  I made a lot of progress in my sport over the past six months and I felt that I could rise to the top of the fleet over the next four years.  It is incredibly disappointing to have the opportunity for me to reach the potential of my sailing taken away - the decision impacts all the funding and structure I have built around my campaign and my life.  Because I have been building my life around windsurfing, I have to start again from ground zero.  The situation is the same for anyone who is a full-time Olympic windsurfer or has a job based on Olympic windsurfing.

The change will impact a lot of structure and grass-roots efforts centered around building windsurfing in the United States and other developing countries.  Although the Bic Techno is still a Youth Olympic class, overall participation and level of mastery will decline as young teenagers begin following their Olympic dreams by learning to kiteboard.  If the decision stands, the RS:X class will become essentially defunct, and many developing countries' investment in the Olympic windsurfing equipment will be irrelevant.

The RS:X class is making a last-ditch effort to turn the vote around at the next ISAF meeting in November.  Please help our class by signing the petition - keep us in the Olympics!

Go here to sign the Petition

Go here to visit the Facebook Group

New Zealand Herald article

Boards Magazine interview with Rory Ramsden 

VSail article about the Royal Spanish Sailing Federation 

Interview with JP Tobin (NZL 2012 Olympic representative) about kiteboarding

BBC video interview with Nick Dempsey, GBR 2012 Olympic representative


  1. 3 US windsurfers vying for 2 positions isn't exactly a fleet. I'm not sure how the decision changes grass roots sailing in US. Young windsurfers still have many avenues to competion without Olympics. Most if not all the skills can be transformed to other sailing & kite course racing classes. Windsurfing will survive without Olympics.

    1. I think that the decision won't really impact the recreational and lower level racing side of windsurfing (as long as the same guys are competing), but I do believe the overall level of interest and skill in racing goes down without the Olympics. For example, at the Miami OCR in January we had 6 USA girls competing, and a few young guys. The same is true for a group of Canadians. Both groups of sailors have largely been developed through the efforts of Britt Viehman and Dominique Vallee, on RS:X. You also haven't seen their winter training camps - 15 kids in attendance on RS:X. Without the Olympics, the overall level of skill will drop again in the USA, leaving us again where we were a decade ago. Let's not forget the high level of physical fitness, technique, and tactics needed in both light air and planing conditions to successfully race one-design Olympic windsurfing. In the Formula class and kiteboarding, the equipment is a major factor in winning races, and only one skill set is needed in planing conditions.

      I believe a "fleet" exists in Florida, and anywhere else someone has taken a strong charge and developed a program themselves.

  2. Well written Farrah, a nice compilation of the major talking points. My blog on decision making in ISAF...