David Owen

Mounting political and economic tensions between the United States-led West and China are presenting sports bodies with a big dilemma. 

The political risk of doing business in the country ruled by the authoritarian administration headed by President Xi Jinping is increasing all the time; yet every commercial pointer says that this vast market of well over a billion people cannot be ignored.  

I came across an excellent example of this recently when scrutinising the latest data from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

Swiss watchmakers provide a wealth of sponsorship and technical expertise to the sports sector, and have done for decades.

The (largely Swiss-based) Olympic Movement is among the prime beneficiaries.

Not only has Omega been a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s The Olympic Partner flagship worldwide sponsorship programme since 2004; but, spooling through the websites of Summer and Winter Olympic International Federations (IFs), I counted at least a dozen with some sort of partnership with a Swiss timing brand. 

Suffice to say, trends in the Swiss watch-making sector should be of more than passing interest to sports leaders.

And currently, by which I mean in the month of September, the trend in Swiss watch exports is crystal clear.

As the federation itself put it in its latest update: "Exports to China leapt by 78.7 per cent in September and fell sharply almost everywhere else."

Swiss watchmakers are heavily involved in sport ©Getty Images
Swiss watchmakers are heavily involved in sport ©Getty Images

This partly reflects, no doubt, the way the Chinese economy has picked up steam once again in recent months, while most other markets remain hamstrung by COVID.

But longer-term figures paint the same picture, albeit in less strident hues.

After occupying the number three spot in the hit parade of export markets for Swiss watches in 2017, 2018 and 2019, China is on course this year to hit number one.

What is more, the third-biggest market in the first nine months of this year – and the biggest of all before that – is Hong Kong, which appears increasingly firmly under the Chinese thumb. 

As the federation update further explained: "The upsurge in the consumption of luxury products in China and the recovery in domestic purchases in this market continued; Swiss watch exports therefore remain heavily focused on this region, to the detriment of other markets."

Given commercial indicators as striking as these, it will be no surprise if sports leaders continue to make doe eyes at Beijing, notwithstanding the new Cold War talk, and of course the IOC is committed to taking the 2022 Winter Olympics there.

But if current political and diplomatic tensions continue to ratchet up, these leaders may be running a significant risk.

The last time that sport got caught up in a struggle between superpowers was, of course, in the 1980s – and look how that turned out.

• And so it looks like we may soon bid farewell to lightweight rowing as an Olympic discipline.

Last week's World Rowing Congress approved the proposal to include three coastal rowing events, including a mixed double sculls, on the sports programme for Paris 2024.

These would replace the two lightweight events that remain for Tokyo 2020.

If the proposal now passes muster with an IOC Executive Board replete with former rowers in December, then I understand that the coastal rowing events would probably be staged in Marseille.

I have to say, I think the disappearance of lightweight races from the Games would be a pity.

Why? Well, as a Chinese delegate to the Congress put it in 1985, he came from a country with a billion inhabitants "most of whom were in the lightweight category".

Lightweight rowing looks likely to be dropped from the Olympics ©Getty Images
Lightweight rowing looks likely to be dropped from the Olympics ©Getty Images

Having said that, when I broached the subject, World Rowing President Jean-Christophe Rolland, argued persuasively that coastal rowing was "a way to get more people involved in our sport".

This was because additional countries would be attracted and much less infrastructure was required than for traditional rowing courses.

"We will bring the Olympic Games much bigger added value," Rolland said.

When I asked him if a good big athlete would always beat a good lightweight, he answered by saying that weight was not the key criterion in making a boat go fast.

Sometimes, he observed, the lightweight boats go faster than the open category.

I thought I would put this claim to the test by counting how many lightweight gold medallists had rowed faster than the corresponding open category winners in every Olympic final since lightweight events were introduced in 1996 at Atlanta.

I knew the exercise was far from foolproof: times can and do vary enormously as the weather changes, and it was not as if the lightweight and open crews in question had been rowing head-to-head.

Nevertheless, with 18 points of comparison, I thought the outcome would tell me something – and I was feeling pretty smug when, after Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, the running total stood at 6-0 in favour of the open crews.

Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 brought a complete turnabout, however, and after London 2012 and Rio 2016 I ended up with a tie – 9-9.

I am still not altogether convinced that lightweight racing should be consigned to the annals of Olympic history.

But at least we now have evidence that the World Rowing President knows his sport better than this particular know-it-all journalist.