LONDON (#1007) – The man of the hour, if not the month, Ben Nicholls (GBR), has just delivered his Change.org petition to World Sailing CEO Andy Hunt. In only a week more than 19,000 concerned sailors from around the globe signed to oppose World Sailing's radical and rushed proposals to change the 2024 Olympic Classes. The accompanying photo is Mr Nicholls in front of the posh, new World Sailing headquarters in central London at 20 Eastbourne Terrace, where he handed over the petition a few minutes ago.
(Not lost on many sailors is the fact that World Sailing has recently moved it's headquarters from inexpensive digs in Southhampton, the popular port and sailing town on England's south coast – just a short ferry-ride to Cowes, Isle of Wight, certainly one of the spiritual hearts of our global sport – to the center of one of the world's most expensive cities. The long term costs of that move aside, the short term expense in terms of loss of staff, hiring new staff, and exit payments to personnel who declined to move, were not insignificant. Coincidenally, Rolls Royce has just announced they are moving their offices out of pricey central London.)
The genesis of the "Save our Sport" petition was this sensible and compelling letter, signed by a number of recent Olympic medalists, that appears in the May issue of the esteemed Seahorse magazine:
Sailing Clubs: Time is Short
You may not be aware that the Executive Committee of World Sailing intend to bring major changes to the Paris Olympics of 2024. It is paramount that those who are in a position to defend our sport and its character, starting at club level, understand the message that we are trying to convey as we believe for many reasons that the very future of our sport is being put at risk. Some of us are sailors who became Olympians because of yacht clubs who embraced us when we were very young and supported our dreams. Some of us even went on to make sailing into a career.
But it is too easy for administrators and those who control sailing to become removed from the sport they have been appointed to help to manage.
Fundamentally our sport is and always has been based upon three fundamental pillars: sailors, clubs and classes. Sailing is facing a critical period in our long involvement in the Olympic Games and it is dangerous to think that ‘this does not matter to me’. Well, it does.
World Sailing’s far-reaching proposal moves the focus from accessible classes like the Laser Radial to a technology-driven format demanding wholesale replacement of expensively acquired boats and equipment. It is now possible that up to eight of the 10 current Olympic sailing disciplines will be dropped for Paris 2024 – crushing the hopes of countless young sailors who are dreaming of some day representing their club and country and becoming Olympians themselves. And of course the less well-funded the sailor – and the sailing nation – the more they will be hurt.
What is virtually a complete change in classes will not only wipe out the enormous investments made year after year by those chasing the Olympic dream, it will take a heavy toll on the sailing clubs that support the sport. Competitive sailing is based on the clubs, where young sailors start sailing in starter dinghies, often after members have helped them take their first step by learning to swim. The water is our arena.
For everyone involved in club sailing the issue that needs your immediate attention is that the Olympic format under consideration by World Sailing sees the Finn, 470 Men and Women, Windsurfer Men and Women, Laser and Laser Radial all possibly dropped for the 2024 Olympic Regatta. Only the 49er and 49erFX will remain. The range of sailor weights and body sizes with a place in Olympic sailing will reduce even further.
Instead World Sailing propose a wholesale switch of emphasis to foiling and foiling equipment, as has already happened to the Nacra 17 fleet – with the substantial increase in cost and complexity (certainly the foiling Nacra is spectacular… but in some conditions it is slower than its non-foiling predecessor).
The thrust is to use Olympic Sailing as a vehicle to introduce kitesurfing, a subjectively scored, wave-jumping, foiling, off-the-beach event held not at the Olympic Sailing venue but at a new Olympic Surfing venue.
It is our firm opinion that kitesurfing has earned its right to be called a sport of its own, and should fly on its own merits and not use sailing to promote its desire to be included in the Olympic Games – and its commercial interests. The reality is that one does not need a sailing club to go KiteSurfing – ‘riders’ just have to pack their gear and find a beach. There are also menacing issues of ongoing anti-trust lawsuits and disputes about who really owns the commercial equipment that will be used and the patents that will control supply.
The proponents of these wholesale changes to what we know as ‘Olympic sailing’ argue that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demand such a switch within their Olympic Agenda 2020. Yet the IOC themselves deny any such arbitrary decrees – stating only that they remain in ‘ongoing negotiations’ with each of the 35 Olympic Sport Federations.
For good reason a major issue today is gender equality. But sailing has always promoted women – this was reconfirmed only this month by the IOC’s latest competitor audit. Olympic sailing already boasts a 45 per cent women’s participation rate – the average across all current Olympic sports.
Finally, these crucial issues are intended to be decided by means of an ‘electronic vote’. How removed from the grassroots of sailing is a remote electronic vote? No face-to-face debate between representatives of Member National Authorities, instead a remote process executed by the click of a mouse… The result could be an Olympic line-up made up entirely of fee-paying manufacturer classes.
The clubs – your sailing club – are the foundation of competitive sailing. You are also the power behind your Member National Authority. They are elected by you and they are only there to represent your views.
If you are against such hurried major changes to this sport then we urge you to back this demand to the IOC and World Sailing: ‘That the selection of sailing equipment and events for Paris 2024 be frozen by the IOC until all of the issues involved are openly, democratically and transparently scrutinised focusing in particular on the effects that dramatic changes of equipment have on the sailors who dream to be Olympians and on the sailing clubs who have nurtured their dreams.’
If you agree with our concerns please contact your own National Federation, tell your Yacht Club and Class Association to do the same and lobby hard to ensure it does not support the destructive proposals to be put forward by the World Sailing Executive Committee later this month.
Time is short. The future of our sport rests with each of you.
A group of concerned sailors,
Sime Fantela (CRO, 470 Gold Rio)
Giles Scott (GBR, Finn Gold Rio)
Mathew Belcher (AUS, 470 Gold London, Silver Rio)
Hannah Mills (GBR, 470 Gold Rio, Silver London)
Luke Patience (GBR, 470 Silver, London)
Panagiotis Mantis (GRE, 470 Bronze, Rio)
Victor Kovalenko (RUS, Head Coach AUS Olympic Team)
Meanwhile, Day 2 of World Sailing Mid-Year meetings took place again today at the World Sailing headquarters in central London. Tomorrow (Sunday) through Tuesday the World Sailing meetings will move, go figure, to the Chelsea Football Club.
One hears today, from multiple sources in London, that after the "President's Late Submission" was circulated by email to Member National Authorities and WS delegates yesterday morning (we broke that news in a world exclusive on SI yesterday), it was put forward by President Kim Andersen (DEN) to the 11-member WS Board of Directors for consideration yesterday afternoon.
Reportedly the WS Board declined to endorse the submission.
What happened next was another extraordinary and unprecedented development – the President called a special, informal, advance meeting of the WS Events Committee for this afternoon (Friday) to pitch his radical, last-minute proposals to them. As the Committee is not scheduled to meet formally until tomorrow (Saturday), not all members were present.
Our sources in London say that at today's ad hoc Events Committee meeting there were, no surprise, almost as many different views as there were people around the table. This included support for, variously, a new foiling fun-board windsurfing event, mixed (one male, one female) 470 event, a mixed two-person overnight offshore "marathon", a mixed kiteboard team event, and mixed singlehanded-dinghy team event – a la what was proposed in the President's Late Submission.
The Events Committee meets formally tomorrow (Saturday), and the Equipment Committee on Sunday. Recommendations from both committees, and the Board of Directors, will go before the WS Council, which meets Monday and Tuesday for a final decision. Exactly what decision?
The WS Council is comprised of the Board and delegates representing groups of nations from around the world. At this meeting the Council will take final decisions for the 2024 Sailing Olympics on the ten medal events – in other words the style of competition (e.g., "single-handed dinghy men"). The equipment (i.e., class/boat/rig) to be used for each medal event will be decided at the Annual Conference at Sarasota, FL in November.
From 20 years of serving on the USA delegation to the world body and on various WS (then IYRU/ISAF) committees and, indeed, the WS Council, your Ed. can attest that the quadrennial selection of Olympic Sailing classes has always been fraught with politics, self-interest, in some cases self-dealing, and a more than a bit of controversy.
However, this go-around makes the past look like child's play, for reasons that are mostly self-inflicted by the leadership of World Sailing. It does not help that WS CEO, Andy Hunt (GBR), and some of his senior staff are non-sailors. It appears to more than a few outsiders, and insiders, that they think of themselves as executives of a global Olympic sports corporation, not the shepards and stewards of one of the world's great competitive and recreational sports.
Sailing, along with Athletics (Track & Field to you Yanks), Cycling, Football (er, Soccer), Gymnastics and Swimming, and a few others like tennis and golf, are widely played and practiced in well over 100 nations. This includes just about every country from the Nordics to the Antipodes (NZL and AUS), across both the eastern and western hemispheres – not to mention almost all the tropical island nations that girdle the globe in which few other sports of any stripe are played other than the aforementioned.
Sailing does not need to "change or be changed." We need to continue to be one of the greatest competitive and recreational sports on the planet by taking care to be as accessible, affordable, diverse, fair, gender-equitable, and "green" as reasonably possible. That means choosing Olympic events and classes that celebrate talent, not technology. While being sensibly evolutionary, for Olympic Sailing we should not be making change for change's sake, or trying untested events and classes. That's expensive, thereby limiting accessibility, and hence unfair especially for smaller countries.
As to TV, sailors and non-sailors alike do not tune in to watch the latest equipment or innovation like Windsurfing was in the 1980s, or perhaps as Kiting and foiling is now. They tune in to watch top sailors, national heroes, competing against other top sailors. In February, why were the TV ratings for the Winter Olympics so low for my other favorite sport, ice hockey? Because the stars of the sport, the NHL players, were not there.
You want better TV ratings for Sailing? Ask the top sailors, the big-name sailors, what affordable (in terms of cost and time) event/class would get them to compete. Top, household names (OK, at least in sailing households) from the America's Cup, TP52 Class, Sydney-Hobart, Moth class, major match racing events, and similar.
The event/class in the world today that comes closest to that is the SSL - the Star Sailors League. Put that class, and those sailors, back in the Olympics, with the SSL format or similar, and you'd have a dramatic increase in top sailors competing, hence TV coverage and interest.
While we are at it, work with the IOC to develop an Olympic Qualification System that allows more than one boat per country to participate. If the two best Finn sailors in the world are from GBR, or any other country, let them both compete. I want to see the world's best at the Sailing Olympics, just like Swimming and Athletics.
You want to make the last race interesting without an artificial double-points medal race with only ten competitors (talk about cutting down TV interest – "sorry, the team from your country is not in the final race"), get rid of the throw-out and count all the races. Now EVERY race is interesting, the results at the end of EVERY DAY are interesting, and the final race, with all competitors and no throw-out, would almost certainly mean that on the final day many more competitors would be in the running for medals.
Or go the other way and make the medal race a real cage-fight, a la proposals in the past from the late, great Paul Elvström (DEN) or often late but arguably greater Russell Coutts (NZL). Long ago Mr Elvström proposed what became known as "Triple Racing." In effect, match racing but with three boats. Just put the top three boats into the medal race, no points carried forward, winner take all. Mr Coutts has advocated similar – a one race, winner take all format like the 100m dash final. Both of the foregoing are much easier to televise, easier for the commentators to explain, and eminently easier for the punters on their couches at home to understand – whether sailors or not. Both ideas have merit; just don't put them into the Olympic before testing them extensively and seeing wide acceptance among clubs and classes.
For all the foregoing, your Ed. strongly supports the summary sentiments of the "Save our Sport" letter, above: "‘That the selection of sailing equipment and events for Paris 2024 be frozen by the IOC until all of the issues involved are openly, democratically and transparently scrutinised focusing in particular on the effects that dramatic changes of equipment have on the sailors who dream to be Olympians, and on the sailing clubs who have nurtured their dreams.’
If that means making no changes until 2028, so be it.
Finally, it's time that World Sailing return to being a bottom-up body representing the views of clubs, classes and sailors, not a top-down global sports corporation imposing what appears to be change for change's sake in pursuit of personal power, the almighty pound Sterling, and elusive TV ratings.