Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Roland Hilfiker attended his first meeting of the FAI Skydiving Commission (which was the Commission Internationale de Parachutisme de la Fédération Aéronautiqe Internationale) in Graz, Austria, in 1984. This is the second part of his four-part series SKYDIVING COMPETITION OVER TIME
I didn’t miss a single ISC meeting through 2002, when it was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. With this choice of location, the delegates intended to signal the air sport's commitment to the Olympic movement.
For the purpose of this article I read through some of the minutes that were produced during this period – a few I had written up myself – and was awed by the quantity and the quality of the work done by the volunteer-based body within a notoriously understaffed umbrella organization (1985: FAI staff of three based in Paris, France).
My personal experiences start on the tail end of the FAI campaign for Olympic recognition, under the leadership of then ISC President Dr. Uwe Beckmann †, and they extend to the presentation of the formal bid for inclusion of parachuting and skydiving events (sic) into the 2008 Beijing Games in 2002, during the presidency of B.J. Worth. Despite my emphasis on these milestones, it would be wrong to assume that attaining the elusive status as an Olympic sport was the main focus of the commission’s work.
It was, nevertheless, one of the overriding objectives during approximately twenty-five years, until the 2003 ISC meeting noted that the air sport would not be part of the 2008 Games by reason of the fact that it did not "attract sufficient revenues, spectators and TV exposure.” The delegates agreed that the commission should continue to keep the sport visible to the IOC and the Games organizers, without expenditure of funds, on the basis that there “was nothing to be lost and much to be gained.”
I find that to be the perfect policy. Not because of the extremely remote possibility to make the program one day, but as a goalpost in the distant and undefined future to serve as incentive to remedy the shortfalls that were singled out. The way becomes the goal: an air sport generating sufficient revenues, attracting spectators and getting media exposure is of immense benefit to its stakeholders – first and foremost – much before it passes them on the Games at quadrennial intervals.
In my days, the shaping and promoting of the products was the mainstay of the delegates’ work. Looking back at it now, a few small groups of true experts performed it not only with creativity and dedication, but with great efficiency and at a vertiginous speed. One only needs to look at everything that was achieved in the 1970s and the 1980s.
Relative Work developed from the simple formats of 10-Man Speed Star and 4-Man Star-Loop-Follow-Up Formation, as contested at the 1975 FAI World Championships in Warendorf, Germany, into the politically correct 4- and 8-Way Sequential. For better clarity, the discipline's name was eventually changed to Formation Skydiving. Canopy Relative Work underwent a virtually identical development, starting with the inaugural FAI World Cup held in Zephyrhills, USA, in 1980. Working parallel to the two subcommittees looking after the “new” disciplines was the one that started it all, the one tending to Accuracy Landing and Freefall Style since 1951, plus another fostering the emergence of a wintery variation on the topic, combining accuracy and skiing.
Each subcommittee worked independently, with reporting duties vis-à-vis the ISC plenary, and based on a constant dialogue with the stakeholders in the competitions. Above all the athletes’ views and preferences guided the subcommittee members in their efforts to give the contests the acceptable format and to author sensible rules. Not too many other factors were considered – and rightfully so at this stage. Spectator appeal and a format being more or less mediagenic had been mere afterthoughts initially.
This changed when the ISC proposed parachuting and skydiving events to feature as Olympic Demonstration Sport in the Games of the XXV Olympiad Barcelona 1992. Trying to put together an attractive program for the spectators in attendance as well as for television audiences around the world, the delegates were challenged and launched on a steep learning curve. First, it was a matter of presenting the proposed events convincingly to the approximately 100 members of the Barcelona 1992 Organizing Committee (COOB 92). While they were – in their majority – quite knowledgeable about sports in general, they were blissfully ignorant about the air sport that was pitched to them through different channels.
Then the ISC had to convince the Olympic broadcasters of the merits of stunning aerial action imagery to be obtained predictably by covering the events in question. And last but not least, the public at large had to be brought up to speed on what certainly was the most technical sport by far of the four aspiring to feature in Barcelona 1992 (Basque Pelota. Roller Hockey, Taekwondo and Parachuting/Skydiving).
It all looked fairly convincing on paper, when Dr. Uwe Beckmann presented Pasqual Maragall, the Mayor of Barcelona and the COOB 92 President, with an advance copy of the document “A Modern Air Sport’s Bid to Become Olympic Demonstration Sport” in early 1987. Forever optimists, the movers of the bid were thoroughly convinced that they would be able to make the strongest case for inclusion in 1992 by excelling four years earlier, in September 1988. The Seoul Olympic Skydiving Exhibition did more than live up to the highest expectations and provided the sport with unmatched visibility. It also gave the ISC the momentum necessary to refine some of its products further.
The coordination between +/- 70 parachutists/skydivers performing in a live display of three events for 10 minutes had been extremely difficult. An assessment that should allow to extrapolate the complexity of running top-level competitions simultaneously in four or even more events over several days, involving 200 or more athletes .
The 1989 World Meet in Relative Work in Empuriabrava, Spain, with 30+ nations participating in 4-way arguably the biggest to date, ran concurrently with the Spanish Masters in Accuracy Landing and 4-Way Canopy Relative Work. The event also premiered the live transmission of a video signal off the freefall cameramen to multiple screens set up in the landing zone.
The legendary William H. Ottley, a longstanding delegate to the ISC, wrote about it in the Parachutist magazine (December 1989): “The next step, which seems just around the corner, is to accept instantaneous air-to-ground video judging and at the same time project the transmission live onto the huge TV screens which are becoming more and more a part of major stadiums. Then you could have a three-part script with real spectator appeal: high altitude freefall shown on the big screen; canopy relative work into the stadium; and turf-surfing landings in front of the crowd.“ A great visionary WHO was!
Read up on the work of an ISC Subcommittee in an article by Eilif Ness, IPC/FAI President.