In 1912, Oscar Swahn became the oldest ever Olympic Gold Medallist at 64 years and 258 days, winning the Team Running Deer Shooting event – a record that stands to this day. But the Paris 2024 Olympics might throw up some challengers to this title with the introduction of the Double Handed Offshore Discipline to the roster of sailing events.
This new addition to the Olympics has been welcomed with open arms by the French – world class leaders in offshore sailing - and is front of mind for me right now with two major round the world battles going on at the same time. The Vendée Globe set off at the start of November for 33 skippers, which will see them race, alone and without stopping, for 65 plus days until they arrive back to Les-Sables-d’Olonne in early February.
And just this week two huge 32 metre long trimarans – Groupe Edmond de Rothschild and Sodebo – set off for their round the world challenge – the Jules Verne Trophy which is awarded for the fastest, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. These behemoths, sailed by a crew of 6-8, have the potential to complete their route in less than 40 days (the current record stands at 40 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds).
But outside of France, and outside of passionate sailing fans, these two sporting events barely make an impact, despite four Brits on the startline of the Vendée Globe and one onboard Sodebo.
So could the largest global sporting event help the sport of sailing capture the imagination of more ‘regular’ sports fans? That’s what the IOC and World Sailing hope to achieve with the Double Handed Offshore Olympic discipline: two crew (one male, one female), a simple course, the longest sporting event ever in the history of the Olympics (either three days and two nights or four days and three nights of racing) and 24-7 coverage.
Will this event be the making of the sport?
This new Olympic discipline will bring unrivalled storytelling unseen like ever before. The ability to ‘go live’ to a boat at any point will be revealing and the ability to speak with the protagonists while they compete is unheard of in any Olympic discipline. With continuous tactical decisions needing to be made on the water, the physical exertion, the exhaustion setting in over time, joining for the highs, but also the lows, it will be possible to experience all of this as an armchair spectator, and has the potential to appeal to a far wider audience than the traditional sailing fan.
Easy to understand
Many of us have seen the toe-curlingly painful, but absolutely on-point faux commentary of Olympic sailing. It’s a sport that doesn’t easily lend itself to TV coverage, despite the best efforts (and budgets) of events like the Olympics, the America’s Cup and SailGP. But this new offshore discipline will be much easier to follow. The 20 boats will race a course that starts and finishes in Marseille, the boats are all one-design so no handicap systems to confuse the action, all jury decisions will be made on the water and the first to finish, wins. One race, one line, one winning team.
Reaching a new audience through esports
For those who fancy a go themselves but haven’t quite made it to Olympic standard in sailing ... there’s the opportunity to bring the race to millions more with an esports version of the competition. This year’s e-version of the Vendée Globe has attracted over 730,000 players on Virtual Regatta. The Paris 2024 Olympics could be the first event to have concurrent esport racing on exactly the same course, at exactly the same time as the ‘actual’ Olympics. An opportunity to reach and engage with an audience well beyond the traditional sailing (and sporting) scene.
What’s the opportunity?
There is no previous event to draw imagery or back stories from, so for any brand looking to be aligned with the Olympic Games, without being on The Olympic Partners (TOP) programme, the double handed offshore event is a great opportunity with a long lead time for storytelling around the world. With engaging and creative dives into the teams, the unique pairings (by age and gender – see more below), the teams’ journey to the Games and with 24-7 output from the actual racing, the offshore event has the potential to create more media value than the rest of all the other Olympic sailing events at Paris 2024.
A wily company, looking for a diverse audience to appeal to, keen to ‘get in early’ with what promises to be an innovative event, should take a good look at this offshore class.
The most diverse sporting event at the Olympics?
I believe the Paris 2024 mixed offshore doubles events will be the most diverse - by age and gender - sporting event in the Olympics (I’d like to address the lack of cultural diversity in the sport at another opportunity).
Offshore sailing typically attracts a more mature competitor, although the list of younger sailors coming through the ranks is exciting to see. The median age of skippers in the current edition of the Vendée Globe is 42, the youngest being 27 and the oldest 61. So, could Oscar’s 112 year record be at risk?
Looking at just some of the names who have expressed an interest in being on the startline, the teams will be filled with a broad range of ages. Round the world yachtsman Nick Moloney (56 in 2024) has joined forces with world renowned meteorologist Adrienne Cahalan (60 in 2024) to put together an Australian entry; France’s Benjamin Schwartz (37 in 2024) and Marie Riou (43 in 2024) won the European Championships in the summer; Britain’s Shirley Robertson (56 in 2024), the first woman to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals, has paired up with rising star, Henry Bomby (33 in 2024) and this double-handed discipline has excited the likes of one of the world’s most accomplished sailors, American Ken Read (63 in 2024) who has been out training with Suzy Leech (55 in 2024).
For a long lead bet, I’d put some money on Jean Le Cam, currently lying in third place in the Vendée Globe. If he would step up to the Olympic challenge and win he’d be 65 and 100 or so days at the Paris Olympics: Oscar’s 112 year record run would be no more.