Summer Olympics: All About Sailing

All About Sailing

If summer is all about finding a way to be in the sun and the water, than sailing is the perfect activity. If your enjoyment of sports is based primarily on tactics, than it might be a great viewing opportunity for you, even if you can’t find a way to set up your television near a pool.

How Does Sailing Work?

All of the Olympic sailing races are “fleet races.” In this case, although speed is important, the word fleet means that a group of ships sails together, as opposed to individually around a course. In every category of sailing, the vessels are under strict rules to ensure that the difference between the best and worst (of the best) sailors in the world comes down to skill, not technology. Skill, in sailing has a physical component — who can adjust their sails the fastest or eek the most speed out of their boats by leaning far over the side as a counter-weight — and a mental component — who can read the wind and the water and adjust the fastest and best to the conditions to pick the optimal route. There’s also an element of luck, because no matter how you cut it, the conditions will be slightly different in every part of the water at every moment.

Why do People Like Watching

Sailing is the Olympic sport that approaches a tactical board game the most closely. Yes, there is a physical element to sailing, but that often gets lost in the wide-angle camera shots necessary to show several boats at once. Instead of watching athletes sweat, and deriving pleasure from that, viewers of sailing watch athletes think and take tactical risks, and derive enjoyment from that.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Sailing events are defined primarily by the category of boat used. These categories are defined by weight and shape as well as feature, including such things as whether it has a trapeze (a wire from the mast down to the hull that allows a sailor to hang over the edge of the boat to create more speed), a jib (the sail that extends from the mast toward the front of the boat), or a spinnaker (extra poofy sail). Of the ten sailing events at this year’s Olympics, five take a two person crew and five a solo sailor.

How Dangerous is Sailing?

Sailing is a very dangerous sport. The most dangerous races are the long-distance ones which take ships far from land and far from help if something were to go wrong. Even in Olympic style racing, two ships colliding or any kind of equipment malfunction or human error can have disastrous consequences.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Sailing?

Sailing is a little off-kilter now, with men having an extra event, four, to three for women with a mixed crew (one man, one woman) required for an eighth event. You’ll also notice that for the most part, men and women race in different boats. The boats for women’s events are designed for lighter sailors than the ones in men’s events.

One interesting note about sailing is that until 1988 it was a gender-free event. There were no gendered events at all and women were simply expected to compete with men.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Sailing is from Monday, August 8 to Thursday, August 18.

Read more about sailing on the official Rio Olympics site.

What is sportsmanship? When is it appropriate?

Mirriam Webster defines sportsmanship as “fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition”. Sportsmanship is an interesting concept. In some ways, it’s like obscenity according to the Supreme Court. When faced with trying to “categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters” you sometimes just have to say that you “know it when you see it.” We all know, of course, that this type of definition is not good enough. Different people view different things as obscene or not obscene and the same holds true with sportsmanship. I grew up playing soccer, just like lots of other people, but I gravitated towards playing defense and over time turned into someone who stayed in the starting lineup despite being slower than most of the other players by doing the little treacherous things, like knowing exactly how long I could hold a player’s shirt before I would get called for it and understanding exactly where to place my body so that an opposing player would stumble over it without attracting attention. I thought that type of infringement was breaking the rules but not breaking the ethic of the game. In other words, I thought I was still showing good sportsmanship. An attacking player would be more likely to try to draw a foul by taking a dive or feigning injury. I always thought that was bad sportsmanship but now that I view soccer as an observer and not a participant, I can see how people might have varying opinions. Sportsmanship is an important concept because it defines the cultural (as opposed to rule-based) norms of a game but it is hard to define and varies from sport to sport and participant to participant. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read a few articles on the topic of sportsmanship that I enjoyed and would love to share with you. I think they create a compelling conflict within and between sports.

Sportsmanship Captured at NCAA Cross Country Championships

by Alison Wade for Runner’s World

This article represents almost a control case for our investigation of sportsmanship. It’s a classic human interest story that lauds athletes who stop and sacrifice themselves to help an injured or disabled competitor. It’s actually more balanced than most, in that it points out that there is an NCAA rule against helping another athlete and by doing so, excuses some of the other runners in a video of the incident who did not stop to assist the falling runner. Still, there is no criticism of two women who do stop to help the fallen runner, quite the contrary.

“It does not surprise me at all that Kate would do that. She is all about team and loves the sport,” wrote Minnesota coach Sarah Hopkins in an email to Newswire. “She saw someone struggling and tried to lend an arm to get her to the end. This was her first national meet, and I am sure that somewhere in her head she thought how awful it would feel to not finish, so wanted to keep anyone from feeling that.”

Is Competitiveness Poor Sportsmanship?

by Sarah Barker for Deadspin

In this article, Sarah Barker discusses several incidents including the one described in the previous article and asks a few important questions: Could media (social and traditional) be driving athletes to help each other even at the cost of their own disqualification to their team’s detriment? Why does it seem like women are disproportionately in the news for showing this type of sportsmanship? Barker, a runner herself, gives us the benefit of her own experience to answer these questions as well as sharing answers from some of the runners and cross-country coaches she reached out to.

Sportsmanship has been a way to ensure that no one goes too far to win, that individual competitiveness doesn’t pass into the realm of cheating or impeding other runners. It’s been about fairness and honoring the efforts of all competitors, but has not, in the past, gone so far as to sacrifice one’s own result to help another runner.   Spectating at a girls’ high school cross country race in the early 2000s, a competitor collapsed right in front of me. Though apparently uninjured, she lay on the grass, sobbing, as scores of runners streamed by. I must say, it felt cruel not to reach out and help her up, but as I bent toward her, a race official appeared and warned me she’d be disqualified if I did so. Some of the other runners urged her on as they passed by, but no one stopped. Eventually, she pulled herself up and carried on. That was just one of several such instances at the same meet.

Volvo Ocean Race: Sportsmanship on the High Seas

by Aaron Kuriloff for the Wall Street Journal

This is a similar article to the first one. It absolutely praises the sailers who went off course during a race to their own detriment to provide assistance to a competitor’s boat who ran aground and was in distress. [The article is worth going to, even if you don’t read it, for the crazy video that captures the power of the ship running aground on a reef as well as the amazingly calm demeanor of the crew as they respond to mitigate the damage.] What I find most interesting about the way the author writes about this, is how clearly he describes the cultural clarity within sailing of going to a competitor’s aid. It seems obvious to me from reading this article, that no one involved with sailing would ever write an article arguing against doing so like TK did in the context of running. A basic rule of the sport and of the Volvo race: Never leave a competitor in danger… “There’s a code amongst thieves out there,” said Ken Read, who skippered PUMA Ocean Racing’s il Mostro team to a second-place finish in the 2008-09 Volvo. “One minute you’re trying to beat the guy at all costs, the next you’re his life raft.”