The structural problems with the sport of sailing are pretty well known. The vast majority of ISAF revenues come from the International Olympic Committe (IOC) and the sport itself is fragmented into thousands of disciplines.
[cleeng_content id=”256918566″ description=”99 cents or 10,000 hours. The path to being an expert can be easy or hard. ” price=”0.99″]Sailing, like shooting in the Olympics is based on the equipment rather than the athlete. Obviously this leads to lots of personal politics and preferences. Running is running. Whether you run 100 metres or 1500 metres, the spending on equipment by Olympic countries doesn’t have to change to much. Building fleets of competitive boats on the other hand is something that has a longer lead-time.
There is a sense that Olympic sailing needs to change and finally, the slow moving governing body is taking steps to make some decisions that are hard for some to accept. The imperiative is partly commercial. According to a detailed analysis by Richard Gladwell, ISAF are under big pressure from the IOC to get the sport in order. He reports…
The International Olympic Committee statistics published by the Olympic Commission are damning. Yachting was the least popular Olympic sport in 2004 and 2008 in terms of number of hours per day of competition coverage. To compound that statistic, yachting was the sixth most expensive to produce for television. Costs of TV production by sport for the 2008 Olympics – Yachting is one of the most expensive, yet get the lowest broadcast time. So you have a relatively expensive sport to produce, which doesn’t get broadcast by the rights holders.
Yachting does not fare well when the IOC conducted a further analysis of the number of Federations represented on the World body of sailing and their distribution. Yachting was the sixth lowest in 2004, and after baseball and Softball were dropped from the Olympic Program after 2004, Yachting was down to fourth to last. In terms of universality of the sport – measured by IOC membership compared to sailing national body membership. Yachting is also way out of balance in Africa (53 IOC nations are members and just 15 nations are ISAF members); and seriously out of balance in Oceania, Asia, and the Americas. Only in Europe does the equilibrium come into play with 49 IOC member nations and 46 ISAF member nations.
In recent weeks, ISAF have been meeting to decide the future look of sailing at the Olympics. There is a real sense that it was a mistake to remove the only multihull from the games and it looks like that decision will be reversed. The Multihull lobby has been well organised and vocal, but reinstatement of the catamaran will mean other, more traditional classes will miss out.
One of the classes that has been designated as redundant is the Star keelboat. The boat has been sailed by some of the sports most recognisable names including British medalist Iain Percy. Percy, who recently became a brand ambassador for Clarks deck shoes, has described the decision to scrap the Star as ‘misjudged’ and ‘misguided’.
He told the Telegraph’s Kate Laven,
“I totally disagree that there shouldn’t be a technical element to the Olympics which seems to be ISAF’s philosophy and I think it will harm the sport long term if they don’t have it. Already there aren’t enough trimmers in the America’s Cup and if the Olympics do not test technical abilities, that skills shortage will worsen. It will leave a difficult transition from Olympic sailing to big boat sailing so is bound to harm professional sailing careers.”
The disconnect between Olympic sailing and the ‘professional’ side of the sport is large and there seems to be a lack of long term vision that combines brand ‘Sailing’ despite the governing body’s attempts to create visible career pathways.
The Star Keelboat is a million miles away from a kiteboard, but they both come under the most general definition of sailing as a sport.
Bearing in mind the statistics that show sailing is not universally participated in by IOC member countries, the £100,000 a year campaign cost of the Star can’t help its case, but perhaps there was also a little bit of complacency by those who sail the boat. Perhaps the big names thought the momentum of the class was enough to keep its place in the games. On the other hand, the sailors who had already lost their careers and livelihoods through the scrapping of the Tornado Catamaran had everything to play for and organised a global campaign that proved successful.
It’s easy to have a go at ISAF. The organisation moves slowly as a result of it’s bureaucratic structure and has to manage hugely different positions and interests, but there is a sense that ISAF were forced to act this time – a reluctant kind of decision making rather than a bold move in one direction or another.
The yacht racing industry will get to discuss the impact of the Olympics on sailing a the World Yacht Racing Forum. Last year’s debate provided some of the best sound-bites of the conference, but there has been little visible action. Iain Percy’s good friend Ben Ainslie will be part of the discussion as will ISAF’s Jerome Pels.
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