Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

Jean-Christophe Rolland, President of the World Rowing Federation (FISA) and newly promoted as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is a relieved man right now.

As the 49-year-old Frenchman - an Olympic rowing gold medallist in the coxless pairs at the 2000 Sydney Games - oversees the 47th World Rowing Championships in Sarasota-Bradenton, he is thankful that the course was only minimally damaged by Hurricane Irma, which caused widespread destruction in other parts of Florida.

"We got very lucky," he said.

"We were, of course, very concerned and had never faced such a situation before. 

"We had typhoons in Japan back in 2005 and got lucky. 

"But there is no plan B for a World Championship when so close to the event. 

"No way to find 10,000 hotel beds and airplane seats at the spur of the moment.

"The locals tell us that Sarasota has a history of avoiding hurricanes due to the geography of the area, apparently having a higher elevation than the land around it.

"But the Organising Committee has faced major challenges, having lost a week of preparation time, and has been fantastic. 

"They made a tremendous work to be ready on time and to ensure the athletes can perform in the best environment. 

"As well, the local community and authorities have provided total support for the event."

The 2017 World Rowing Championships venue at Sarasota-Bradenton was only minimally damaged by Hurricane Irma, which caused destruction elsewhere in Florida ©Getty Images
The 2017 World Rowing Championships venue at Sarasota-Bradenton was only minimally damaged by Hurricane Irma, which caused destruction elsewhere in Florida ©Getty Images

The latest World Rowing Championships come in a year when FISA - older even than the IOC - is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

"We decided to celebrate FISA's anniversary all year, not on one specific occasion," Rolland added. 

"So the World Championships will be one piece to a puzzle that has been coming together all year long.

"We are proud to be the first International Sport Federation and hope that we represent the best of international sport."

It has been a challenging year for the Frenchman, however, as the winds of change have blown fiercely around his sport and he has faced a struggle to convince others within it as to the best course of action - luck has had nothing to do with it.

At the FISA Extraordinary Congress in February, Rolland helped persuade the membership to reach the gender equality required by the IOC by dropping the lightweight coxless men's four from the Games programme in favour of a women's coxless four. This left only the men's and women's double sculls as Olympic lightweight events at Tokyo 2020.

Rolland has admitted that lightweight rowing may not have an Olympic future beyond Tokyo.

"To be frank and straightforward, there is no guarantee at all at this point in time," he told insidethegames.

"With Agenda 2020, the IOC will carefully review the programme event by event after each edition.

"We know already that the question will be raised again.

"Even if we stand by our determination that the lightweight doubles are critical for the universality of our sport, we will have to present a strong case."

Jean-Christophe Rolland, President of the World Rowing Federation, speaks at this month's IOC Congress in Lima ©Getty Images
Jean-Christophe Rolland, President of the World Rowing Federation, speaks at this month's IOC Congress in Lima ©Getty Images

Rolland, who told member federations in February that the starting point of discussions with the IOC over lightweights at the Games had been "zero lightweights", feels that keeping two events at Tokyo 2020 represented a victory.

"The IOC is strongly challenging the weight category of rowing in the Olympic Programme," he said.

"I remember my first meeting with President [Thomas] Bach, the initial comment from him was to eliminate lightweight rowing completely at the Olympic Games.

"I told him that this would have a massive impact on our sport and our member federations.

"This was the start of the careful cooperation to justify lightweight rowing but, in that justification, we struggled to find arguments for the lightweight four as promoting universality.

"Raising universality was the primary argument back in 1993 for the introduction of lightweight rowing in the Olympics.

"Since the introduction of lightweights into the Olympics in 1996, rowing has expanded massively around the world primarily due to the sense that the playing field has been levelled for smaller body types and that they had a more equal chance in this sport."

The strength of feeling this issue has aroused within rowing was colourfully expressed before the Extraordinary Congress by Britain's Mark Hunter - Olympic gold and silver medallist with Zac Purchase in the lightweight double sculls at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 respectively. 

"I think we are just being strangled by the IOC to do what they want," he told insidethegames.  

The option proposed in stark terms by Rolland in February was carried by a far from overwhelming vote, 94-67, with strong support being shown for the alternative option of cutting the men's coxless four rather than the lightweight four, and adding a new women’s lightweight coxless four category. This would thus increase the Olympic lightweight events to four.

One of the arguments behind plan B was the highly competitive nature of lightweight men's four racing in recent years.

But now it is no longer part of the Olympic programme, Rolland admits that its future is already looking questionable.

"I wish I felt more positive about this," he said.

Switzerland's Lucas Tramer celebrates victory in the lightweight men's coxless four at the Rio Games - but now it is his event that looks likely to be floored following its removal from the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Switzerland's Lucas Tramer celebrates victory in the lightweight men's coxless four at the Rio Games - but now it is his event that looks likely to be floored following its removal from the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

"Unfortunately, many Sport Ministries, National Olympic Committees and National Federations (NFs) immediately cut their funding for the rowers usually in this boat and the rowers switched to either open sweep rowing squads, or the lightweight double squads.

"We will have a vote on the World Championship programme at our congress on October 2 and the NFs will decide on the future of this boat at the World Championships."

Asked if there was now a risk it would shrink without an Olympic option, Rolland added: "Yes".

No President of any International Sports Federation can afford to be too rigid these days over the possibility of changes - that is, if they want their sport to remain within an Olympic Movement being shaped around Bach's Agenda 2020.

Many sports have helped adjust their gender balance by creating mixed events - and rowing might eventually do the same. But there will be no rush, if Rolland has his way.

"We do not exclude mixed events as an option," he said. "We have not found any good reason or argument that would prevent us to have mixed crews. We offer mixed gender boats at the Paralympic Games and the athletes have fully accepted this as a pro-active approach to gender equality. We also have mixed gender events at our Masters regatta. 

"We believe that this needs to start at the lower end of the pyramid of participation - schools, universities, clubs then junior, under-23 and finally senior. We do not believe it should just be started at the top event of an athlete’s career."

But the idea of racing at the Olympics and World Championships over distances less than the standard 2,000 metres - floated by those who would like to give rowers some shorter, sharper alternatives - gets a firm "non" from the Frenchman.

"We are strongly opposed to shortening the racing distance because we believe that the aerobic aspect of our sport is fundamental to our culture and core values," he responds. 

"Sprint rowing is indeed exciting but totally changes the physiological make-up of our athletes to anaerobic as well as losing the beautiful aspect of technique and rhythm. It becomes a one-minute, all-out leg press match which we don't think is appropriate."

At the February Extraordinary Congress it was agreed that Para-rowers, who have previously operated over 1,000m, will now move up to join other rowers on the 2,000m course.

"We are very proud of our culture of total inclusion of Para-rowing at our leading events," Rolland said. "However, as our events have grown in size since the introduction of Para-rowing in 2002, we struggled to find the time in the programme to break, bring in the 1,000m start bridge, stage the Para-races and then break to remove this start bridge.

"It was unsustainable. We also heard the rowers say that they wanted the same field of play and didn't want special treatment. I can also say that asking a regatta Organising Committee to invest in a second start bridge was a big budget item.

"So, it was primarily a practical question that needed to be closed. We are proud that the televised finals here on Saturday and Sunday will start with two Para-rowing races each day."

Rolland receives his IOC membership from President Thomas Bach at this month's Congress in Lima ©Getty Images
Rolland receives his IOC membership from President Thomas Bach at this month's Congress in Lima ©Getty Images

Asked if his success in persuading the FISA membership to follow the path deemed more acceptable to President Bach had been an important factor in him becoming an IOC member, Rolland responded: "You would have to ask the IOC this question, but we have been told that our approach to the delicate changes related to Agenda 2020 were appreciated by the IOC as well as our very close and constructive cooperation with them all along the way, from the launch of Agenda 2020 until our Extraordinary Congress in February of this year.

"I was elected in September 2013, a few days before President Bach was elected IOC President. I started my relationship with him from then, so it has developed only over these four years."

Asked what being an IOC member would enable him to do on FISA's behalf that he could not as a non-member, Rolland responded: "I must say that the relationship with the IOC is excellent. It has been a key consideration of FISA to build and maintain a very close and equally constructive relationship with the IOC, should it be with its members or its administration.

"We have few IOC members coming from rowing, and now it is my privilege to be part of them. If it is important for rowing indeed as a "non-major" sport to have representatives, I don't see my role or contribution limited to this dimension."

Rolland was one of two IF Presidents to become IOC members in Lima, the other being Ingmar De Vos from the International Equestrian Federation, who said his priority as a new IOC member is to see how "International Federations can be more involved in the delivery of the Games," adding: "This is very important. In the past, we were only providing technical requirements. 

"In Rio, it was proven that the role of Federations needed to be much more active. We also need to have the right to take responsibility for delivery, as it is also our legacy, not just the host. I think we need to be much more involved in the technical delivery of the Games."

Asked whether he has the same aspirations for FISA, Rolland said: "I believe that is very good, not to say essential, indeed, that sports are represented within the IOC and, as Ingmar correctly said, there is a positive evolution of our position, notably when it relates to the Olympic Games, from the bidding phase to the legacy, including of course the preparation and the delivery.

"In terms of legacy, it has been FISA's key consideration for a very long time as we are very conscious of the huge potential for water sports activities but also the danger if proper legacy planning does not happen. We have had a full-time architect on staff since 1997 and she has developed all Olympic venues since 1992 as well as nearly all rowing venues around the world as well."

Addressing his new sporting status, Rolland concluded: "I am very honoured to enter such a prestigious organisation and I am very grateful to those who trust me and believe that I can contribute positively to it. I would like to add that I never sought membership in the IOC as a personal goal or achievement.

"I actually never even thought of being FISA President, but life is made of crossings and opportunities and when the challenge presented itself, I simply took it.

"I will continue to serve the sport and Olympism with passion, and most importantly always in full respect of the great values they represent. Being involved and closer to the decisions of the IOC is really important for a sport like rowing, and it is my honour and duty to my sport to do what is best for it."