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World Sailing to put five Olympic classes under the scalpel for Paris

by Richard Gladwell 1 Feb 2018 12:57 PST 2 February 2018
Gemma Jones was the only female helm in the Medal Race for the Nacra 17, Mixed Multihull at the Rio De Janeiro Olympics © Richard Gladwell

World Sailing's Events Committee has issued it's recommendation for the first stage of 2024 Olympic selection saying that 49er, 49erFX, Nara 17, Laser and Laser Radial should all be left as is for 2024.

The flip side of that decision is that they recommend Finn, RSX Mens/Womens, and 470 Mens/Womens should each go under review.

The 49er, 49erFX and Nacra 17 Class Association (yes, the three classes are handled by the one body and it works well) are well pleased with the Decision which arises more from a need to comply with World Sailing's regulations than pressure from within the sport.

In its latest newsletter, the Association says "it gets fairly complicated. 49er and Nacra 17 are far from clear yet, but it's a good first step."

World Sailing, the controlling body of the sport of sailing seems to be confirming its direction of travel away from the lessons of the 2010 ISAF Olympic Commission which set a road-map designed to reduce the risk of Sailing being dropped completely as an Olympic Sport.

Key recommendations in the report delivered in May 2010 and updated in September 2010 hinged around the need for the sport to become more universal - in terms of participation in so-called developing countries, and participation in Olympic Qualifying events. Gender equality needed some adjustment but is nearly there, with currently six medal events for men and five for women.

Cost of TV coverage of the sport at the Olympic Regatta shows Sailing being one of the most expensive to cover and delivering one of the smallest audiences. Sailings's saving grace was being one of the most followed on web-based media. And, the sport is still a world-leader in this regard - more outside the Olympics rather than within.

The need for gender equality in terms of events and medals was also recognised - and was able to be addressed simply by having five events for Men and Women, and with 15 medals being available for each gender. The Mixed Multihull was devised as a means of making the numbers work, and a push further down the Mixed event path seems to be one of the driving forces behind the current review to again make the numbers work. The issue is that Mixed competition doesn't reflect the basis of competition in the Olympics. Where's the Mixed 200 metres relay in Athletics, or the Mixed Quadruple Sculls in Rowing? Shooting which did have Mixed events is now split completely by gender and doesn't have an equal number of Mens and Womens events or medals.

The Olympic Commission convened by then Yachting Australia CEO, Phil Jones recommended the development of a Mixed Gender class at the Olympics, which led to the introduction of the Mixed Multihull event, filled by the initially part-foiler Nacra 17. The class has now been transitioned to a full foiler for the 2020 Olympic Regatta in Tokyo.

On the surface, it was a groundbreaking move in an Olympics which only has three other mixed gender open competition sport - Equestrian, Badminton and Tennis (the latter two having just a Mixed Doubles event) .

In the Medal Race for the new Nacra 17 class only one of the ten helms was a female - New Zealand's Gemma Jones - who placed a creditable fourth overall, winning the Medal Race. While World Sailing seems content to play a numbers game on the social engineering of sailing, the reality is that they are still short-selling women's sailing.

Outside the five-ring circus, the Volvo Ocean Race has taken a new initiative to lift women's participation by offering additional crew numbers for female sailors - on a scale of seven male only crew members scaling to five male and five female crew members in a short-handed 65ft boat. Initially dismissed as an exercise in social engineering by SHK Scallywag skipper David Witt who opted for a seven-man crew. The Hong Kong-based Australian changed his tune taking first one female crew member, and then a second - as navigator - for Leg 4 and apparently for the rest of the race. Witt's change of thinking paid a big dividend with a navigational strategy call proving decisive with SHK Scallywag winning Leg 4.

Volvo Ocean Race's move has gone a long way to addressing a key issue in the race, which did have an all-women crew in the 2013/14 event - Team SCA. But that crew was the first since Amer Sport Too in the 2001/02 Volvo Ocean Race, and there was a serious shortfall in Volvo OR experienced female crew as a result of that female drought. That situation has been addressed, and for the first time in Whitbread/Volvo Round the World race, there will be at least one and probably more females with Volvo OR win medals hanging around their necks come the overall prizegiving in The Hague at the end of June.

But the VOR is a long way from Olympic sailing. Quite why World Sailing is on its present gender kick is a little hard to understand. It ignores a task not even half-done with the Developing Countries.

The criticism of then ISAF and its Olympic slate in 2010, was that it was too Euro-centric. Indeed of 53 IOC members located on the African continent, just two were represented in the 2008 Olympics. Similarly with Oceania - 17 IOC members, but only two in Sailing in 2008. Even more, telling was the statistic that of the 53 IOC members in Africa, only 15 even had ISAF Member National Authorities established in their territory - a long first step to getting sailors to compete at the Games. Oceania was better with 17 IOC members and 11MNA's but still only two 2008 Olympic competitors. In 2008, Europe had 49 IOC members and 46 MNA's.

One of the recommendations from the Olympic Commission was for the World Cup to be more geographically spread and made more accessible from the Regions. That did happen with various formats being trialled, but failed for the simple reason that European nations would not travel further than the east coasts of USA to compete. World Sailing's eventual response was to accept that situation and shift the World Cup back to being a northern hemisphere event - with no regattas being held south of the equator. Maybe that was also a reflection that only eight of the 30 medals on offer in Rio were won by southern hemisphere nations.

Reasons for the lack of participation by MNA's from developing countries were varied but usually came down to cost of equipment and cost of participation in Olympic competition.

After the 2010 Olympic Commission report it transpired that the International Olympic Committee judged participation in a sport not by who physically turned up at the Olympics (which could always be fiddled by giving "wild card" entries to competitors from developing countries), but by participation in Qualifying Regattas. The easy fix, which World Sailing has done is to shift to a tiered qualification process where some places are allocated from Regional Games or similar.

But the review of equipment or classes to be sailed has gone the other way to that recommended in 2010 with the options being towards more expensive equipment (foiling Nacra 17), possible offshore keelboat event and who knows what else. The cheaper more widely available options are the ones that have been slated for review (470 and RS:X).

In a parallel exercise - driven by European anti-trust regulation - two/four of the classes - being the Laser and RS:X are being put under the investigators' magnifying glass.

The classes (Laser, RS:X and 470) are at the cheaper end of the Olympic equipment scale, and therefore the most attractive to developing countries. They have a good second hand market - essential to give entry level competitors access to good gear. There is the added benefit that at the Olympic Regatta the equipment in these four (Laser and Rs:X) events is supplied - meaning that competitors can literally fly in with just their sailing apparel, and compete on level terms.

It seems near certain that Kites will come into the next 2024 Olympics - with overall competitor and event numbers staying the same - ie 10 events, 30 medals and (near) 50/50 gender split.

The push is on too, for an offshore keelboat class - as a Mixed gender event. That being so just seven of the existing events and classes can remain.

13 classes into 10 events won't go and the sailing politicians seem to be warming up for another round of hand-wringing. As is so often the case, the investment in existing equipment seems to be a minor consideration in the overall game of setting a grand strategic direction.

There are issues with the offshore keelboat event, which should be well known to World Sailing.

In its push for two or four mixed gender events, World Sailing is again ignoring the fact that many Muslim countries will not allow men and women to compete against/with each other on religious grounds. By keeping the Mens and Womens 470 as separate events this issue is addressed in a way that works for the current sailing population and follows most sailing class progression systems. Three of the existing classes, making up six events at the Olympics are the most popular in the Developing countries - RS:X, Laser (and Radial) and 470.

Learning from the Mixed Multihull experience - how many female helms are we likely to see if the Mixed 470 is devised as an event for 2024? Will we see the same as the Nacra 17 - with mostly male helms and suitably sized females as crew?

Turning then to cries for females to be crewing in the America's Cup with the VOR Quota system being pushed as the way forward, isn't the real issue that until a female skipper wins an Olympic Gold Medal in open competition, female sailors will not feature on an America's Cup crew shopping list.

Looking at the situation through a different lens, what if Gemma Jones had won the Gold Medal in the Nacra 17 in 2016, in a part foiler? Or does so in 2020 in a full foiler - would she be looked at seriously as a potential America's Cup helm? Definitely. And the same for other helms of her ilk who win Olympic medals in the foiling classes.

Of course, the Nacra 17 class had the opportunity to change the class crew dynamic when Jones and crew Jason Saunders worked out how to run a foiling Nacra 17 with a Code Zero upwind in marginal foiling conditions. That would have meant that the crew in the Nacra 17 would have needed to be average weight, tall and strong - tilting the scales well in favour of having a male crew and female helm.

Yes, it was claimed that the gear was not designed for the upwind Code Zero. But given that the Kiwis coach is Murray Jones - a five-time America's Cup winner and sparmaker by profession - surely he would be well placed to make an assessment? Apparently not.

Sadly the class elected to outlaw the practice for the 2017 Worlds and the opportunity for a gender leveler was lost.

The point that remains with the various reviews and out of the box thinking Sailing is at real risk of positioning itself once again as a narrowly based, high technology, high-cost sport largely practised in "first world" countries, just as it was before the 2010 Olympic Commission Report.

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