We are at one of those occasional moments when the sport of sailing needs to take stock, and make some significant decisions about its future.
Our two most influential contests – the Olympics and the America’s Cup – are both at the crossroads. How they deal with their respective challenges will soon have serious consequences for sailing at the elite level. Inevitably, many of those changes will then exert a more gradual influence on the sport as a whole.
Let’s consider a few of the key questions.
The combined mishandling by the IOC and World Sailing of the mixed gender two-handed offshore race for the 2024 Paris Olympics (and beyond) was an embarrassment for both authorities. The intrinsic merits or weaknesses of the proposal are no longer a matter for debate. The real failures were World Sailing’s tardiness in tackling – and solving – the detail issues of their proposed event, and, for their part, the IOC’s transparently political maneuvering to dump a discipline they had previously endorsed.
Both sides emerge from this dispute with little credit. Instead of progress, they have created animosity and disruption.
The Finn class is the most obvious loser. After seven decades of distinguished Olympic competition the only dinghy that still provides fair competition for sailors who weigh more than 85 kilos is abandoned to history. Quite how World Sailing can now retain any sensible relationship with the Class Association is difficult to imagine. They have made enemies of some of sailing’s best, and most loyal, athletes.
It is doubtful whether the roster of classes to now be contested in 2024 is in any way an accurate reflection of the relative popularity of those craft in worldwide competitive sailing.
Participation rates have always been a problem for the Olympics because the sport is so diverse. But how many nations have well-supported, regular regattas for female kiteboarders (laying aside the matter of whether kite-boarding is even “sailing”)? The IOC seems to have confused popular recreational activity with genuine, hard racing.
There is little doubt that the recent boom in two-handed offshore competition was partly created by its foreshadowed inclusion as an Olympic discipline. Now, those sailors will have to wait until 2032 at the earliest for inclusion– if at all. Meanwhile, the manufacturers who spent millions developing their versions of the class are facing a long procession of order-book cancellations.
This has become a classic lose-lose situation, and it’s difficult to escape the suspicion that sporting politics overpowered common sense. The outcomes have minimal apparent benefit to few, if any, of the sailors for whom the Olympics are meant to be the pinnacle of their sport.
The America’s Cup now finds itself in a similar muddle.
New Zealand media are reporting that Grant Dalton, leader of the ETNZ team, will probably reject the combined best offer by the New Zealand Government and Auckland City Council of a fee to host their AC37 defense. This is blunt confirmation that the America’s Cup is no longer a match between yachts representing two sailing clubs and their respective nations.
It is certainly not the “friendly competition between nations” as envisaged in the Deed of Gift. To any sailor whose affection for the Cup stretches back more than 20 years this development is profoundly disappointing. The event is now a commercial property to be sold to the highest bidder irrespective of national affiliations.
It is a crass, debased imitation of Formula One motor racing where the rounds are auctioned off to locations such as Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi. These have no genuine connection with the sport yet their capacity to pay millions buys them a fleeting moment of name-check exposure on the international stage.
The justification espoused by Dalton for asking well North of $150m for the right to host the Cup is that ETNZ needs that level of funding to keep his team together.
That may well be so (and there is no reason to believe his intentions aren’t honorable), but is that really consistent with the spirit of the world’s oldest sporting competition? To keep more than a hundred specialists employed for three years perfecting a class of boat sailed at just one regatta and nowhere else in the world?
No doubt some gullible nation will eventually stump up the asked-for cash but sailing fans in New Zealand, a fiercely parochial nation, are unlikely to welcome the news that the next Cup will not be defended on their home waters.
Sure, we’ve been there before (Valencia, Bermuda) but it still seems a bit like playing Wimbledon at Baton Rouge.
– anarchist David