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Gladwell's Line- For whom does the Olympic Bell toll? - Part 1

by Richard Gladwell on 3 May 2011
Will the Mens keelboat event stay afloat for the 2016 Olympics? © Richard Gladwell

Co-incidental with the conduct of trials designed to give sailing’s most prestigious and oldest trophy, the America’s Cup, it’s most dramatic makeover in 160 years, the International Sailing Federation will this week meet to decide whether it too, has the courage to make fundamental changes to its pinnacle event, the Olympic Sailing Regatta and its lead-up events

The time for back room consultation, avoiding the hard decisions, kite flying and decision avoiding is over.

This week the world body of sailing will be put to the test to determine whether it has the fortitude to make the change that is both required and overdue.

After making some progress, including the formation and reporting of its Olympic Commission – set up on the realisation of some rather disturbing statistics arising from the 2008 Olympics and a trend fuelled over several Olympiads, the organisation now seems to have lost the plot.

The world body of sailing took a battering in November 2007, when its ruling body, the ISAF Council voted by a narrow majority to eliminate the Multihull as an Olympic Event for 2012.

Just over three years later, they will most likely about face and put the Multihull Event back into the 2016 Olympics.

Fixing mistakes is not something at which the ISAF is accomplished. Its modus operandi is more to make very slow deliberate moves, at a pace determined largely by dogma, sailing politics and reshuffling the same old deck of worn cards.

Its previous President, Paul Henderson (CAN), a plumber by trade, realised that the only way to drive the organisation at faster than glacial pace was to lead from the front . And, if that required a banging of heads, slaying of sacred cows and being generally controversial then so be it. That approach bought in new, simplified racing rules, a high performance skiff into the Olympics, stamped out a patch for the ISAF with the America’s Cup organisations – and in the eight years of Henderson's presidency the organisation made some real progress.

His successor Goran Petersson (SWE) style is more consensual – which unfortunately leaves the organisation to drive itself in a pace and direction with which it is comfortable. An astute corporate lawyer and sailing rules expert, Petersson has chaired both the Olympic and America's Cup Juries plus led the introduction of match racing umpiring.

Petersson has a back room, low-key approach, preferring to listen an sum-up, as opposed to his predecessor's more combative lead from the front debating style.

Nevertheless with his softly, softly style, Petersson and his Executive Committee almost caught the Olympic monkey when they initiated a major change process by the formation of an Olympic Commission under the tutelage of Brit turned Aussie Phil Jones, which produced the draft Olympic Commission report presented to the ISAF 12 months ago.

Petersson rather neatly got the backing of the powerful Executive Committee, the ISAF’s inner sanctum, in one question – by asking 'who did not support the findings of the Olympic Commission?'

There was no dissent, and by definition there was complete support.

The ISAF Council wasn't prepared to take him on either. Again, by definition there was complete support.

The reaction of the sailing world was also highly favourable and the scene seemed to be set for a sea change to take place in the Olympic Regatta.

Key changes identified

Then came the ISAF Meeting in November 2010, when the push had to come beyond just a laying on of hands, and putting down some concrete change.

Those changes fell into several areas – all connected – but ran deep through the sport. They included:

- Removal of world championships for Olympic classes and putting the focus on the ISAF World Sailing Cup which would culminate in a Final each year.

- Staging of the ISAF World Cup in both reduced number of events and more geographically spread than the current situation where of seven World Cup events, all but two are held outside Europe – and the Australian opening regatta is poorly attended by European competitors, who won’t travel.

- Changing of the Olympic Qualification system to a basis on which half the Olympic places were allocated on a world ranking (ie places in a world qualifier) and the other half of the places would be done on a regional basis. Again the thrust of this proposal was to break the European domination which saw 70% of European countries represented at the 2008 Olympics and just 13% and 18% out of Africa and Oceania respectively. Or, in numerical terms 32 European nations were represented compared to just two each from Oceania and Africa. The imbalance was glaring and was noted by the International Olympic Committee.

- Making the sport more universal – 20% and 22% of the ISAF member countries in Africa and Oceania participated in Olympic qualification for 2008 compared to 78.5% for Europe. (Percentages calculated by taking the average of male and female participation percentages). Clearly not only were many countries not competitive in some regions but they had given up even bothering to compete at world championship level.

In summary, the over-riding issue through the whole debate remains whether Europe recognises there is a world outside their continent and whether they are prepared to share their ample bag of marbles with the developing sailing regions of Asia, Africa, Oceania and to a lesser extent the America's.

Then there were the issues which have been around for many years about whether the Olympic classes represented the proper face of the sport, and whether the class progressions they generated were enticing young sailors into the sport, and retaining them through to Olympic competition.

Many commentators believed this was not the case, and that the current Olympic classes owed their place more to the lobbying power of their respective class associations, and ability to play the political game within the ISAF, rather than on their merits.

The Multihull Mistake

That view was reinforced by the dumping of the Multihull in November 2007, after some neat political footwork 12 months ahead of the normal decision time for the Olympic classes, when the ISAF voted on Events for 2012 and then said that it would decide the classes in the normal time, 12 months later following the 2008 Olympics.

By ditching Multihull Event, when the poorly organised and politically naive Tornado class was caught napping in November 2007, the ISAF reinforced its stereotyped thinking to its sailing constituency.

Fast forward three years to November 2010, the ISAF had the chance to make the hard change required to put a new face on the Olympic sport, but elected to put off the hard decision for another six months, until this week, May 2011.

In November 2010 the organisation had to fit potentially 14 events into a 10 event Olympic schedule.

In doing so they also tried to make some numbers work in a politically correct way to achieve a greater degree of male and female balance, and consequently queered their pitch yet again.

One of the mantras that had been put about the ISAF since the November 2007 debacle was for the five disciplines of sailing to be represented – windsurfer, singlehander, doublehander, multihull and keelboat. That got twisted by some to mean that there also had to be an equal card for men and women. That did not reflect the gender split in the sport – at which 605 male and 40% female would have been generous to the female side of the sport.

Politics over Pragamatism

One of the work arounds put forward by the ISAF Events Committee and confirmed by the ISAF Council last November was to introduce Mixed Events in the case of the Mixed Doublehander which became the lot of the 470 class, and also the Mixed Multihull – in a class to be determined, by Evaluation Trial.

That left the decision to be made on whether to have Kiteboards or Windsurfing – and the solution was to bracket those in one event each for Men and Women. Quite how that would work was never explained.

Lost in the mix was the Mens Keelboat – largely because ISAF Event and Council members could not separate their thinking from pairing an Event to a Class.

In the case of the Mens Keelboat the ISAF representatives literally were Star-struck in the belief that if they voted for the Mens Keelboat then they were in effect voting for the century old Star keelboat.

The fact that there were other keelboat options, beyond the Star did not permeate the ISAF thinking.

Neither did the Council go down the path that if they worked through the Events one at a time – there were other options on each level – which may have been an existing class (where Evaluation trials had been held in the last 15 years), or Evaluation Trials could be staged. Instead the Council voted for a complete Events slate only.

Probably the only given was the ubiquitous Laser class – which deserved its place as a universal Mens and Womens single hander - able to be sailed by sailors from any country.

In touting the Mixed classes, the ISAF got a very lukewarm reaction from its proletariat.

Most realised that there were no classes running an ISAF recognised World Championship for a Mixed crew. That being so – why did there suddenly need to be two Olympic Events for this new dynamic?

Secondly you didn’t have to be too bright to work out that in the performance order of life, that a Mixed class would inevitably be helmed by a woman with a male crew.

That being so, and if you totaled up the Events card passed provisionally by the ISAF Council then to field a full sailing team, a country would need 16 sailors – nine female and six males. That is well out of whack with the gender balance of the sport – and would create a new set of issues in the sport, on top of those identified by the Olympic Commission.

The complete Events slate that was developed by the ISAF’s Events Committee was put to the Council and passed by a narrow two vote margin. The logic being that the Council accepted while that the Events slate had flaws, however it would rather see the reaction from member countries before final sign-off. More consensus.

After an initial deafening silence the lunatics moved to take over the asylum, and the reaction was a massive 65 submissions from classes and National Authorities to the Mid-Year Meeting which gets underway on 4 May in St Petersburg, Russia.

Most of those submissions are geared to the vexed issue of Olympic Events, and in not leading the decision process in the way they did leading up to November 2010, the ISAF Executive and Council have laid themselves open to the old games of politics and self-preservation that have so beleaguered the sport.

Only one of those submissions, for instance creates a way for the spectacular and attention grabbing foiling Moth to be selected as an Olympic Class – in a new Mens High Performance Singlehander event.

Most would reverse the ISAF up the path of choosing new Event names, but locking in many existing classes – and then orientating Events around those classes.

The nonsense of bracketing Windsurfing with Kiteboarding remains to be resolved.

What to do?

We’ll cover that in Part 2 -!click_here to read

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