Olympic Games: The choice of boats is of interest to the EU's justice system

2016 Olympic Sailing Games © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

World Sailing is the subject of an investigation by the antitrust institutions of the European Union. The choice of a single manufacturer for Olympic one-design sailboats is disputed. Between internal policy and industrial issues, a look back at some arguments

Ongoing European Union investigation against World Sailing

In November 2018, the European Union opened a preliminary investigation against World Sailing into its choice of boats for the Olympic Games. The procedure, initiated in Italy with the national authorities at the request of the Italian dinghy manufacturer Devoti Sailing, has been forwarded to the European antitrust authorities. The complainants complain that the International Sailing Federation awards the contract for each class to a single one-design sailmaker. The procedure is still ongoing today.

An evolution in the choice of boats

While historically, the International Sailing Federation defined technical characteristics for each class, allowing each yard to freely build the boat corresponding to the rules, the model has evolved towards the choice of a type of boat existing with a builder. The latter, owner of the intellectual property rights, can then, if he so wishes, grant manufacturing licences to other shipyards. It is this change that is being challenged by the complainants, considering that it violates the rules of free competition.

Technical and commercial arguments

According to the sports law blog, LawInSport, World Sailing can justify its choice if it is "proportionate and necessary to the sport". The need for time to make a heavy investment profitable and the assurance of total equity in the quality of the support are the first arguments. The latter remain questionable because other Olympic sports such as cycling leave a total choice of equipment. The main problem is the absence of an obligation on World Sailing to grant licences on reasonable economic terms to competitors.

Other aspects of the choice of Olympic boats could be challenged, such as the revision of allocations every 8 years, i.e. 2 Olympiads, while the texts limit the duration of these contracts to 5 years, unless otherwise agreed.

Political issues

These industrial issues concern the balanced and fair development of yachting and the nautical industries. However, the reason for the procedure does not seem so noble. Devoti Sailing, the initiator of the complaint, is the main manufacturer (more than 90% of the fleet of the last Olympic Games) of Finn, the Olympic dinghy, which has been ousted from future sailing events. The main purpose of the procedure would therefore be to protect its activity. Today, it still has doubts about the 2024 Olympic Games programme and does not push shipyards to invest in the future Olympic livable sailboat.

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