Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

The jokey phrase that has travelled the rounds within the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to describe lightweight rowing at the Games - "basketball for short people" - makes it clear what the leadership of the sport has been up against over the last couple of years in trying to maintain at least some lightweight elements in future Olympic programmes.

As Jean-Christophe Rolland, the President of the International Rowing Federation (FISA), and his predecessor Denis Oswald, the Swiss IOC member, made abundantly clear to voters at the FISA Extraordinary Congress at the weekend, opening discussions with the IOC on the question of how to re-arrange the Olympic boat classes and achieve gender equality had a starting point of "zero lightweights".

The stance adopted by the IOC as part of the Agenda 2020 "strategic roadmap" introduced by the recently arrived President, Thomas Bach, in December 2014, clearly indicated an end to weight categories in Olympic sports other than combat events and weightlifting.

So the IOC was never going to buy an increase in Olympic lightweights from the current level of three to the four entailed in the alternative proposal that was offered to voting delegates at the Tokyo Congress. 

That option would have involved losing the men's open weight four (M4-) rather than the lightweight men's four (LM4-) and adding a lightweight women's four (LW4-).

Denis Oswald, former FISA President, reluctantly insisted that reducing lightweight events at future Olympics was the only available option ©Getty Images
Denis Oswald, former FISA President, reluctantly insisted that reducing lightweight events at future Olympics was the only available option ©Getty Images

After two years of signals and fine-tuning, the IOC Executive Committee - which will have the final say in July on the Olympic programme from Tokyo 2020 onwards - will surely not deny the FISA proposal adopted by 94 votes to 67 of substituting the LM4- with a women’s open weight four (W4-), thus leaving just two lightweight events among the 14.

For the Tokyo 2020 Games at least.

The speeches made by Rolland and Oswald at the weekend offered one of the clearest views so far of how it feels to be operating under pressure within the shifting politics of the IOC.  

Other sports that felt a similar draught before the London 2012 Games, such as hockey and modern pentathlon, virtually performed back somersaults to please.

Blue pitch for hockey? No problem there gents. Modern pentathlon taking too long? Let us merge the running and shooting. 

Shooting still too risky for kids? We will make it laser shooting. Will this do?

Oswald, whose strenuous efforts first got lightweight rowing included on the Olympic programme in 1996 on the basis that it would encourage new nations, especially those less used to producing giant human beings, to seek a new Olympic challenge, made it very clear that in an ideal world he would like to have seen the alternative proposal put forward. 

But if it was bound to sink, as Bach had privately told him, there was only one option.

What emerged amid the debate, however, was awkward evidence that, particularly in the case of the LM4-, lightweights have become too good for their own good.

Russia's Alexander Lesun takes gold at the Rio Games in modern pentathlon, which has convoluted itself in recent years in order to satisfy the IOC's changing requirements ©Getty Images
Russia's Alexander Lesun takes gold at the Rio Games in modern pentathlon, which has convoluted itself in recent years in order to satisfy the IOC's changing requirements ©Getty Images

"In all these discussions it is now very clear that the IOC does not see the justification for the two men's fours," Matt Smith, FISA’s executive director, told insidethegames

"When one looks at the times between the events, they are nearly the same.

"We have seen a study of the difference in time between the two events from 1997 to 2016 at the Lucerne regatta, offering the same regatta course, same water temperature and similar competition density.

"There is only 1.3 per cent difference in the winning time of the two events (open men’s four is, on average, faster) and a 0.4 per cent difference in the fifth place time between the two events.

"This is difficult to defend to the IOC as being two very different and unique events, especially when the weight of the boat is the same for both.

"It has also been argued that the LM4- brings more universality than the M4-, which the IOC has also brought to our attention. 

"Since 2000 at the Olympics, the men's open four has had 24 different countries participating while the lightweight men’s four has had 22 different countries participating at the Games.

"A total of 28 countries have participated in these two events, but 17 are the same countries in both. So this makes it difficult to argue to the IOC that these two events are unique and different."

Too good for their own good? Switzerland celebrate Rio Olympic victory in the men's lightweight four - an event that will be dropped from the programme for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Too good for their own good? Switzerland celebrate Rio Olympic victory in the men's lightweight four - an event that will be dropped from the programme for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

Difficult indeed. But beyond the stats cited here - which may partly be a tribute to the efforts of successive talented and technically able rowers who have kept their bodyweight below natural levels with the iron resolve of jockeys - a basic truth stands, as it always has. 

By and large, a good big 'un will always beat a good little 'un.

Albeit that the universalising impetus envisaged by Oswald more than 20 years ago has failed to materialise, it looks as if the IOC is gradually restoring Olympic rowing to the big units.