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Paul Henderson: The World Sailing emperors have no wetsuits

[SAILING ILLUSTRATED welcomes Paul Henderson as our latest SI Contributor. A longtime friend and lifelong racing ​​sailor including two Olympics, Paul was President of World Sailing ("WS") for ten years 1990-2000 when it was ISAF and before that the IYRU. He is a former member of the International Olympic Committee ("IOC"), headed Toronto bid Committeesfor the Olympics and Pan Am Games, and is a recipient of too many awards for service to the sport to mention, including World Sailing's highest honor, the Beppe Croce Award. –TFE]

TORONTO, CAN – Every Olympics over the last decade the IOC has attacked Sailing. I remember walking into the IOC Hotel at the 2012 London Olympics and a Senior IOC Vice President came to me and said that Sailing had no face at the IOC in Lausanne (I retired in 2005). Lacking strong international leadership, Sailing is in jeopardy at all levels, especially the Olympics. The reason is simple – World Sailing has lost focus of it's primary mission: serving sailors.

For the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Sailing had a quota of 425 sailors, and now for Tokyo 2020 we are cut back to 350. When I was President, I fought to get us to 11 events, and now we are cut back to 10 plus the loss of the Sailing in the Paralympics. The most destructive erosion to Sailing was when the IOC, with the acquiescence of WS, decided that keelboats would be deleted. When that happened in 2003 I predicted that the IOC would kill Sailing in the Paralympics, and this has now happened. What's next?

Sailing has been in the Olympics since the modern Games were started in 1896. Our sport has broad, world-wide participation from the cold Nordic climes to hot tropical islands, from Auckland, Sydney, Capetown and Rio to the northern reaches of Canada and Russia; from Royalty to commoners like me; and in over 100 countries – rivaled only by soccer, swimming and athletics.

Twenty years ago – a decade or more before most other Olympic sports – Sailing had gender equality with regards to medals. From the 19% women in Savannah (1996), Sailing advanced to over 40% women competing by the 2008 games in Athens. And it's approaching 50-50 now. Moreover, for many years I pushed the IOC for mixed events (men-women) which they denied until, finally, the coed multihull event we had in Rio 2016. Coed is the way our sport is primarily played in our clubs and classes, and the IOC has finally given in to us. And guess what, now some other sports are being granted coed events for 2020. There's a moral here: shape the IOC and marketing/TV to our sport, not the other way around.

On the flip side for the 2020 Olympics the IOC and WS are trying to go high tech with NACRA 17 foiling cats – a class that exists only on paper. Other than one or two test boats available for evaluation by a few sailors, the class isn't yet in production (let alone has even been raced), and it is a discipline with which most sailors in most countries have no experience. And we are only one year before the first WS Qualification Regatta for the 2020 Games!

This totally skews the Games to the few wealthy nations that can afford these boats, and already have some experience sailing foilers, when they finally come on line. I am happy to say that new WS President Kim Andersen (DEN) realizes this, but he is new to the IOC politics. I trust he will address this situation.

New WS President Kim Andersen (DEN).

The other travesty that is happening is the ridiculous WS World Cup concept that is being perpetrated on our sport by WS CEO Andy Hunt (GBR), a non-sailing "marketing expert" from Rugby and the British Olympic Association.

In this so-called World Cup of Sailing series, WS promotes its own regattas with only 20 entries per class or less for the sake of it's own TV show and the benefit of hard-to-recruit sponsors, not the sailors.

If you look at the entries at World Cup regattas in Santander last week, or Miami in January, it is ludicrous as most classes cannot even get to their allotted numbers because the sailors have no idea if they will be accepted due to the restrictive entry process. And the cost to compete is outrageous. Sailing has many excellent Race Weeks. World Sailing does not need to arrogantly compete against them. In fact, it is proving by it's own stupidity that it can't.

It is time that concerned sailors stand up and proclaim that the World Sailing emperors have no wet suits!

Return Sailing to its participatory roots, to the long-standing, well-developed, traditional regattas with mainstream international classes and unrestricted entries. And stop trying to re-shape our sport for the sake of television and sponsors. Modern media technology is quickly evolving and can be adapted to cover our sport, and promote sponsors, rather than the other way around.

Don't ruin our sport or try to turn it into something it is not and never will be, and most of us don't want it to be – NASCAR or big time wrestling.

Kiel, Miami, Cork, Palma, Melbourne, Medemblik, Charleston, Hyere, Qingdoa and on and on have been the strength of Sailing and will continue to be in the future. Classes like the Laser, Finn, 470, Tornado, Star (yes, Star!) are the backbone of our sport along with the clubs. Do not throw them out for the sake of TV, which will never do our sport justice anyway. Again, use TV coverage to promote our sport as it is now played, with tweaks not wholesale makeovers.

Sure, when a new discipline comes along that is broadly interesting to racing sailors, go for it with an existing, internationally viable class in that discipline. I even like the idea of an offshore Olympic event because it is how a large segment of our sport is currently played. If that makes sense to TV and the marketeers, great!

Stop trying to create new classes and disciplines on the fly for perceived marketing benefits. It has never worked, and never will – and especially won't work if you are trying to create a monopoly for yourselves (emperors of World Sailing) for the sake of raking in a large cut of the boat-building profits.

Look no further than World Sailing's new motto – sport/sustainability/technology – to see that WS has lost it's way. The Olympics should be about talent and teamwork. Leave technology to the America's Cup.

Bottom line, World Sailing must stop trying to be a marketing organization for the sake of money and more marketing. Marketing must be the means not the end. Return WS to being a service organization, responding to the needs and views of sailors via their clubs and classes rather than dictating to sailors the demands of TV and the marketeers.

WS will get back on track, to the benefit of sailing everywhere, when it rededicates itself to the fundamental mission of serving sailors by keeping the field of play level for all who love to race sailboats.

[We welcome your comments either below, or via email – – which we will then post as a Letter to the Editor. –TFE]

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