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 EU investigation against World Sailing

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

An evolution in the choice of boats

While historically, the International Sailing Federation defined technical characteristics for each class, leaving each shipyard free to 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 rights, can then, if he wishes, give manufacturing licences to other shipyards. It is this change which is attacked by the complainants, considering that it infringes 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 fairness in the quality of the support are first arguments. The latter remain questionable as other Olympic sports such as cycling leave a total choice of equipment. The main problem lies in the absence of an obligation by World Sailing to grant licences at reasonable economic conditions to competitors.

Other aspects of the choice of Olympic boats could be contested, such as the revision of the awards every 8 years, i.e. 2 Olympiads, whereas the texts limit the duration of these contracts to 5 years, unless a derogation is granted.

Political issues

These industrial issues concern the balanced and fair development of the yachting and nautical industries. However, the reason for the procedure does not seem so noble. Devoti Sailing, the complainant, is the main builder (with more than 90% of the fleet in the last Olympics) of Finn, the Olympic dinghy, which has been ousted from future sailing events. The main purpose of the proceedings would therefore be to protect his activity. It maintains today a doubt about the programme of the 2024 Olympic Games and does not encourage the shipyards to invest in the future Olympic sailing yacht.