rowingvoice

The independent voice of rowing in Britain

Wind, fairness and precedents wind up the nations in Plovdiv

Posted by rowingvoice on September 13, 2018

Dateline:  Thursday 13 September 2018

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I was up until stupid o’clock on Wednesday night writing for the Telegraph (see a heavily edited piece here) and Row360 (see an explanation of what, who and when here) but they are more factual articles, so here’s a sprinkling of personal opinion with a bit more nerd-detail.  Those who haven’t got their heads around the 12th September 2018 fairness issue might like to read the Row360 article first.

At the time when racing was suspended on Wednesday I was bewildered. The serious lack of communication with the independent media nowadays (we are hardly ever given information proactively any more) meant that there was huge confusion about the reason, particularly once the announcement of suspension “until further notice” had gone out. Even allowing for the sheltered nature of the press tribune, the wind was so average that it couldn’t seem possible that the Fairness Commission (FC) would be unable to find a solution to the issue of wind dramatically favouring lanes 5 and 6. With all the weapons at their disposal – reorder lane draws, shift lanes over, delay until the wind direction stabilises later – they’ve not had an insoluble problem in the eighteen years I’ve been regularly covering international events. So it must be lightning, I reasoned — there was an ominous cloud gathering behind the start and thunderstorms had been predicted, indeed were being discussed by members of the FISA communications team who were clearly as much in the dark as us.

But no, the reason was solely fairness, and as it turned out the reason for suspending indefinitely then cancelling was that it became clear the wind was varying far too much and too quickly to offer any chance of being able to rejig lanes fast enough for fair racing.

Here are FISA’s FC measurements as logged from the anemometers (wind meters) after the end of racing:

I cut off the headers snapping pictures of the data quickly, but think the left-hand graph is from the anemometer above lane 6 on the bridge, where the FC members were discussing the problem during racing, and the right is from a different anemometer clearly showing that wind varied across the course. WS = wind speed, T = temperature, and I think TR (which goes to -100 below zero) is something to do with the difference between speeds of signals of the transducers in the anemometer, which provides a check on either wind speed or direction.  The main thing to notice is the wildly jumping wind numbers after 3pm.

“Every time we thought [the wind] was going down, it came back up again,” said Rosie Mayglothling, one of the three Fairness Commission members, explaining that they decided to completely cancel as soon as they realised how impossible it would be to predict anything. “And a lot of athletes had already been on the water a long time.” The wind was acting at odds to what had been predicted, especially since which lanes were affected was varying too much.

A side-bar to the team managers’ meeting was the sight of Svetlana Otzetova — FISA’s events doyenne, Bulgarian rowing icon and deeply connected to this course — telling Rosie Mayglothling of the Fairness Commission that they were using the wrong (non-local) weather forecasters and that the locals had predicted the problem. It’s easy to be wise after the fact, but FISA normally prides itself on its recruitment of really good weather expertise at every championships, and it’s a shame if the best aren’t currently involved.

The FISA Executive Committee (EC) has huge powers at a world championships, and for speed of operation at an event it takes charge of some other decisions which might normally be farmed out to a specialist commission. There is no appeal within FISA from the EC’s decisions (although countries have appealed to the overarching Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) at the Olympics a couple of times). The four federations who appealed the LM2x results (at a guess, Canada, Greece and two others) already knew that nothing would change when they entered the team managers’ meeting on Wednesday evening.

To those who think the FC was slow in reacting, in fact they sprang into action quicker than I have ever seen them do before. That is partly what tripped the situation up: within the first two races of the afternoon (109 and 110) the fairness commissioners had quickly decided racing was affected, and they shifted the lanes across to try and even out the disadvantage during the third LM2x quarterfinal (111) while they put in process the mechanism to halt racing and make a bigger change in lanes. The error came in doing this for race 113, but letting the WhatsApp message to the 62 team managers go out before race 112 had even started. It meant that six countries knew their quarterfinal, which would decide the top 12 crews this year and almost certainly impact on individuals’ funding, was definitely unfair at a point when it could have been postponed.

Was there an instinctive desire to let the whole of a set of quarterfinals take place before changing anything? That wasn’t addressed at the team managers’ meeting (and is easy to deny after the fact so I didn’t even bother asking) but there’s no doubt it was simpler to put all 24 LM2x into the exact same position. There’s overall fairness (was our race legit?) but there’s also fairness within your boat class, and both fret away at the minds of rowers and coaches. FISA go to great lengths to ensure that all rival crews have the same number of races, and if early suspension of activities had given the last two races a better chance of fairness, that would have increased the pressure to re-row the first two (with the knock-on effect that those competitors would have done an extra 2km race before the A/B semis on Thursday).

Nothing was easy for anyone yesterday. Both points of view are valid: the teams who feel they were robbed rightly point out that the decision will make it much harder for anyone to appeal a race on fairness grounds in future. Many will be discouraged from doing so even if the FC or EC are getting something badly wrong. That’s not a good outcome. But the Executive Committee’s concerns that if they did allow re-rows in this case they would be opening the door to an endless procession of re-row requests — perhaps even of Olympic finals — were also valid. Where would the line be drawn on how unfair it had to be to spark a re-row?

In the minds of some, the FC has been disenfranchised by being “overruled” but the FISA system is clear: the FC is there to inform the EC about the level of fairness during races, and to take prompt action if possible to improve fairness on the spot or delay racing until that can happen. But the one thing it cannot do is decide the outcome (eg a re-row or results standing) if unfairness is proven to have occurred. (And in fact the FC cannot restart racing after a suspension — that is done by the president of the umpire jury, though acting on their advice.) The EC made no bones about it: they totally agreed with the FC’s judgement of unfairness in the races which had already taken place, but saw greater reasons to disallow re-rows than to allow them in this situation.

Nobody wins here.

There is one lurking question to the Executive Committee which again I didn’t ask because it’s unanswerable and would not have drawn a reaction. It’s completely hypothetical, and any meaningful response FISA could give on the record would tie them to a future course they might regret. The question is this: “Had the unfair races happened in Linz 2019, with not just crew funding but Olympic selection at stake, would you have done the re-rows?”

Nobody can answer that at this point, but my gut feeling is that the Executive Committee might, faced with cutting several high pedigree crews out of any chance of qualifying automatically for Tokyo, have gone the other way. And probably insisted that this was for Olympic qualification reasons only, thus not a precedent for other regattas. Certainly the pressure on FISA would have been even bigger if it was 2019 and countries might have considered an appeal to CAS. We aren’t there, but FISA is going to have to consider that a possible scenario and work out what to do if it ever does happen.

Future options involving instant racing-suspension were mentioned on Wednesday, and sound interesting though FISA will have to work through the implications and possible unintended consequences. Another suggestion in the pipeline is athlete lane selection, trialled in May and still under consideration for the future, although all that does is shift the initial draw, and doesn’t change what happens when the FC decides wind has altered so much that a redraw is needed. Could we cope with having an athlete re-select at the start of an Olympic final? Does it make a difference when the real problem is a lack of parity between not only lanes but races?  Will those athletes with teams who can afford seriously good weather predictions do better?

There are no easy solutions which don’t create new difficulties, or which might, in shifting responsibility from officials to teams, put a burden of responsibility on crews and a drain on resources for the less well funded.  If that creates new inequality, we’re no better off.

Discuss……

 

Rachel Quarrell in Plovdiv

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