Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

Rowing, and lightweight rowing in particular, faces a crucial point in its history this week as the sport’s governing body, the International Rowing Federation (FISA), votes on restructuring the Olympic boats programme from the Tokyo 2020 Games onwards.

At the FISA Extraordinary Congress, which takes place between February 9 and 12 in the 2020 Games host city, the choice of options intended to best satisfy the pressing requirements of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been reduced to two.

In order to reach gender equality in events required by the IOC, the international federation favours replacing the lightweight men’s coxless four (LM4-) with a women’s coxless four (W4-). This would ensure the men’s and women’s programme at the Games would each have seven events, but only two of the 14 would be for lightweights, who would only have the men’s and women’s double sculls.

The alternative option, proposed by Australia, Canada, China, Denmark and Switzerland, would remove the men’s coxless four (M4-) rather than the LM4- and bring in a lightweight women’s coxless four (LM4-). This would give lightweight rowing four of the 14 events.

There are other important items on the agenda at a Congress that is regularly held in the year after the Olympics, including changing the race distance at the Paralympics from 1,000 to 2,000 metres.

But it is the shape of the Olympic boat classes, and what many fear could be the beginning of a calamitous slide for lightweight rowing, that has occupied most attention in the weeks leading up to this voting.

Driving all this is the desire of the IOC to see one its most venerable sports - rowing has been part of the Olympic programme since the second Modern Games of 1900, and would have been in the first in 1896 had there not been inclement weather, re-shape itself for the 21st century. This means having an equal number of opportunities for male and female rowers, as well as an allotment of opportunities that best accords with the more debatable quality of "universality".

Interesting word, "universality".

The Swiss men's lightweight four rowers celebrate victory at last summer's Rio Games. Now the event faces banishment from the Olympics ©Getty Images
The Swiss men's lightweight four rowers celebrate victory at last summer's Rio Games. Now the event faces banishment from the Olympics ©Getty Images

When he stepped down in 2014 after spending a quarter of a century as the FISA President, Denis Oswald was asked by World Rowing what his proudest achievement had been in that time.

Oswald replied: "The development and increase in the number of national federations in rowing and the practice of rowing in different parts of the world. When I started there were 67 national federations, now there are 142. For me this was my goal from the beginning - the universality of the sport.

"One of the means to achieve this was adding lightweight rowing to the programme of the Olympic Games. This was one of the most difficult tasks that I had. When I visited Asia, especially south-east Asia and Latin America, and asked them why they did not support rowing, they said 'we have no chance with our smaller, lighter people, so we don't treat rowing as an Olympic sport'.

"I saw lightweight rowing as a way to get more countries involved. But among the IOC a lot of people were against it because they were not prepared to make an exception for rowing in weight categories.

"There was also opposition within FISA because if lightweight rowing was added to the Olympic programme it would mean we would have to eliminate heavyweight events. At the 1993 Congress I had to convince national federations. I needed a two-thirds majority. I fought hard for that.

"For example, I studied the average weight of the world population. Lightweights equalled 70 per cent of the world. I was able to convince national federations that our sport could not ignore so many people. I needed 100 votes and I just got it.

"I was proud recently in London at the Olympics when a British coach stopped me and said, 'when you presented your idea about lightweights, I spoke against it. Even after so many years, I'd like to say that I was wrong, you were right. You had a vision and we didn't realise it was for the good of rowing worldwide.'"

Lightweight rowing certainly sounds like it fits well with an aspiration for "universality".

And yet in 2002, just six years after it had been added to the Olympics at Atlanta, lightweight rowing found itself under direct threat when the IOC’s Programme Commission recommended that, outside combat sports and weightlifting, there should not be weight category events at the Games.

On that occasion the initiative was overturned by the IOC Executive Board. But as FISA has made abundantly clear in presenting its painstakingly chosen recommendation to be voted on this week, the lightweight classes are again in the IOC cross-wires. 

Denis Oswald, President of FISA for 25 years, had to battle to get lightweight rowing introduced to the Games in 1996 in order to make the sport more universally popular ©Getty Images
Denis Oswald, President of FISA for 25 years, had to battle to get lightweight rowing introduced to the Games in 1996 in order to make the sport more universally popular ©Getty Images

"Over the past two years, alongside our consultation process with the member federations, we have worked very hard to build a constructive and trusting relationship with the IOC leaders and administration," reads the FISA statement. "Like the other sports, rowing must listen, react, adapt and exercise extreme care in our strategy with regard to how we position our sport.

"From all of our discussions with the IOC, the message is clear: they strongly question the inclusion of lightweight rowing in the programme of the Olympic Games.

"This is certainly not a new situation; the IOC has consistently questioned the inclusion of lightweight rowing in previous reviews of the Olympic Programme but the context has dramatically changed. It is very clear to us, given this new context, that the IOC will not consider an increase in the number of lightweight events, nor even the status quo of three."

What is adding an extra edge to FISA anxieties is a small but important change made by the IOC regarding the decision over Olympic boat classes.

After the 2016 World Rowing Championships in Rotterdam from August 21 to 28, the rule regarding Olympic rowing entries was altered. In the past, Rule 37 meant that FISA, as the international rowing body, was able to decide upon a quota of events and a maximum number of athletes given to them by the IOC. Now a new Rule 37 exists:

"Rule 37 – Olympic Games Boat Classes"

"The events programme for the Olympic Regatta shall be determined by the IOC Executive Board after consultation with the FISA Executive Committee, in accordance with the Olympic Charter. The FISA Congress shall vote to select a recommended Olympic programme for the purpose of the consultation with the IOC prior to the IOC’s decision on the programme".

This means, effectively, that the IOC has the final say over events at the Games.

"The IOC have stated on a number of occasions that they are opposed to any weight-restricted events (outside of combat sports and weightlifting)," said rowing blogger Daniel Spring. "If FISA propose 10 open-weight and four lightweight events and then the IOC reject lightweights we stand to lose four events."

None of this is going down very well anywhere within rowing, and particularly, as one might expect, within lightweight rowing.

It is fair to say that Britain’s Mark Hunter - Olympic gold and silver medallist with Zac Purchase in the lightweight double scull at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 respectively - is not a fan of the current situation.

Mark Hunter, front, with Zac Purchase after winning gold for Britain in the lightweight double sculls at the Beijing 2008 Games, believes the IOC is
Mark Hunter, front, with Zac Purchase after winning gold for Britain in the lightweight double sculls at the Beijing 2008 Games, believes the IOC is "strangling" his sport ©Getty Images

"I think we are just being strangled by the IOC to do what they want," he told insidethegames. "We are on our knees begging for them to look after our sport. We are losing control of our sport. They are basically saying that we are not responsible for it any more.

"Many of the newer sports the IOC is talking about generate a lot of money. Rowing has a large participation, but we don’t generate a lot of money. And this is the danger.

"If we could have 30,000 people watching every day like there were at Eton Dorney at the London 2012 Games everything would be fine. But at Rio there was no-one there. In Beijing, when Zac and I won our gold, they had to get lots of kids in to fill the spaces."

When it comes to the stark choice with which the sport is now faced in order to move forwards in the Olympic Movement, Hunter admits it is a tough decision.

In order to support lightweight rowing it would be necessary to get rid of the event which has produced some of the most celebrated British victories on the water in recent years, given that the M4- projected Steve Redgrave through to his fifth Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games, and Matthew Pinsent earned his fourth gold in the same boat four years later in Athens.

Indeed, since Australia’s wins in 1992 and 1996, Britain has earned gold in the men’s four at every subsequent Games.

By contrast, since its introduction at the 1996 Atlanta Games along with the two other lightweight Olympic disciplines of the men’s and women’s double sculls, the lightweight men’s four rowing event has produced four different winners - Denmark, France, South Africa and Switzerland - and a succession of spine-tingling races.

"I am British and I am proud of our history in the men’s four," Hunter said. "But arguing for the event on this basis is very selfish. When you look at the recent history of the race at the Olympics there have only been two countries in it.

"On the other side of that argument, if you bring in a lightweight women’s four it’s going to be a new boat, and it will take time to evolve. It is not going to be operating at top level overnight.

"But then if you think about getting rid of the lightweight men’s four - what other race would you want to sit down and watch for excitement value?

"If we are supposed to be looking at rowing as a global sport, the lightweight men’s four has produced some of the best races in recent years. The Swiss have had some great results in recent years, but you know it is always going to be close.

"I love the fact that Britain has dominated the event. But as far as the sport is concerned, looking at it as if you were a neutral, is this a good thing?"

Hunter does not doubt that it is all or nothing for the LM4- event now.

"If you take the lightweight men’s four out of the Olympic cycle, it wouldn’t disappear, but the standard would fall away," he said. "Countries would stop investing in it - what would be the point if it wasn’t in the Olympics? What would be the point in getting people to take the event up?

The men's four is an event which is under threat ©Getty Images
The men's four is an event which is under threat ©Getty Images

"It would drop away, just like the coxed pair did after it was dropped from the Olympics after 1992."

Hunter also believes a decision to remove the LM4- would be grievous to lightweight rowing as a whole.

"If you took the men’s lightweight four out, it would just kill people’s interest in competing," he said. "You will be killing that side of the sport. If you are a lightweight rower in future, you will be thinking, 'if I come into the sport there’s only two Olympic seats available'. That is so hard. It is difficult enough as it is.

"The heavyweights are going to hate me saying this, but as there are so many different heavyweight events, you can move around and jump ship. 

"That isn’t possible for lightweight rowers.

"Not everyone goes to the Olympics to win a gold medal. Lightweight rowing has meant the participation of people who aren’t giants, who can go to the Olympic Games and represent their country. This is why lightweight events are special. There are 20 different countries from different regions that take part.

"It would be very good to have statistics on how many new Natiional Olympic Committees have been able to take part in Olympic rowing since the introduction of lightweight classes."

As the rowing website row2k.com has pointed out, according to a document it posted in May 2016, Rowing Canada is already addressing this particular issue.

"Rowing Canada strongly supports the inclusion of lightweight rowing in the Olympic programme in both its forms: sweep and sculling. It is difficult to accept the argument that the LM4- does not support universality while the LM and LW doubles do, without seeing any data to support this claim," the document says.

The federation added that it is conducting analysis that compares the universality and competitiveness of the three lightweight events on the Rio programme, including the men's light four and the men's and women's light doubles, and would be presenting the results to FISA before the Congress vote.

The double sculls is the only lightweight category at the Olympics for female rowers, but that could change ©Getty Images
The double sculls is the only lightweight category at the Olympics for female rowers, but that could change ©Getty Images

Canada's position document also states: "The lightweight men's four event annually provides one of the most hotly contested and competitive events in the World Championship, and the same is true for each Olympics since it became an Olympic event in 1996.

"Over the past years, the LM4- has proved to be a popular event; in 2015 there were 23 entries in the LM4- versus, for example 12, for the M4x, and 11 in the W4x. There is a strong argument that in fact the LM4- has added to universality.

"While we fully recognise the challenges the IOC and Thomas Bach have with lightweight rowing, we believe it's up to us as leaders of the sport to stand up to the IOC in what we stand for. If the belief is that this is an important event for rowing, we should defend it and not allow external forces to fully control rowing's programme.

"With respect to balancing the programme, retention of the LM4- would require inclusion of the LW4-, if the goal is to mirror the men's events with women's events. Rowing Canada would support this option going forward as the additional women's event."

Danish rowing commissioner Henning Bay Neilsen told row2k.com that the voting question should be about which women's event, the W4- or LW4-, best contributed to the IOC’s "universality" criteria, adding: "Which four would be a bigger boost to women's rowing in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? And what about central and eastern European countries? Which event would attract the most females to compete in international events? The LM4-/LW4 proposal secures universality."

But perhaps the most telling overall comment on this whole issue has been provided by the USRowing director of high performance Matt Imes. 

"The days of the Olympics being the same core events, quadrennial after quadrennial, are changing," he said.

Time and tide wait for no crew…