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Gladwell's Line: Losing the Olympic Dressing Room

by Richard Gladwell, 13 May 2018 05:27 PDT 14 May 2018
Even Christ the Redeemer couldn't save the Finn's Olympic continuance beyond 2020 © Richard Gladwell

World Sailing's Events Committee has set the scene for the traditional rejection of their 2024 Olympic recommendation when the matter is considered by the governing body in a couple of days time.

The Committee produced a Recommendation for the 2024 Olympic regatta which requires new equipment in five classes and five new events.

Gone are the RS:X, Finn and 470 class. If you own one of the latter - you've got some hard decisions coming up.

To chase the Olympic dream in 2024, you'll need to ditch your boat, arrange for an amicable divorce with your crew - and then you can start looking at the options for Marseille - except if you are male and weigh over 85kg.

There are just three crewed boats, down from five, on the proposed slate for 2024 Olympics. Kiteboards and new singlehanders have taken their spots.

Next week, you should start looking at making a sailing career change. Develop a Plan B and C.

If you are involved in a 2020 campaign in one of the Olympic classes dropped events, you'll need to get a guarantee of selection from your MNA for 2020. There is no point in going through the pain of a 2020 selection campaign only to have your MNA decide a few months before the Olympic regatta that you aren't medal capable.

Better to cash-up early and then be prepared to move on one of the new classes if they are suitable. Olympic campaigns do take six years - 2024 starts now.

Maybe go to one of the new and established circuits which have successful competition on an ongoing basis throughout the season, are well run, and you don't get saddled with some very expensive kit if for some reason there is a change of class. Olympic sailing is great - if someone else is paying the bills.

Of course, there's always an America's Cup with the scuttlebutt being that there are a further four teams looking seriously at a Challenge. That's about 400 vacancies to be filled in a gig which extends into 2021.

For Finn sailors it's not all bad news - there are 352 sailors from 32 countries lining for the Finn Masters in El Balís, Spain in a week's time. There's obviously a burgeoning market of older guys now sailing the Finn outside the five-ring circus - who've probably made a bob or two and wouldn't mind upgrading their kit.

Hurry up and wait

Before doing anything take a deep breath and see how the games play out for the rest of the week.

History tells us that almost inevitably World Sailing's Council rejects the recommendation of the Events Committee - which is supposed to be an expert committee and back in the day it probably was.

People came through from class associations, had mostly had real jobs, and could think clearly and independently with a good breadth of sailing experience to draw on. They were their own men and women and didn't have the pressure of having to produce the "right" result for head office.

Sailing Illustrated's Tom Ehman spent a reasonable chunk of his life on the Events Committee and takes a degree of pride in that fact that he as Vice and Sadi Claeys (BEL) as Chair, managed to get Council to agree to his Committee's recommendation. It was a very rare achievement.

You can read Tom's take on the current state of the Events Committee by clicking here

The exit interviews from the Events Committee meeting had it that there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the 17 member committee and that the recommendation reached was largely an accident of democracy.

The Committee voted several times on various Submissions, and M36-18 was the first/only one to get the required 50% backing.

Conflict of Interest?

It is not known how many of the Committee recursed themselves - a count last week of World Sailing's Conflict of Interest register coupled with a second independent level of background check showed that up to seven of the Committee could have varying conflicts of interest - depending on how deep that definition is taken.

The issue is that several are on the payroll of class associations and member national authorities - a situation that is viewed askance by many. It begs the obvious question as to how they - required to vote in the best interests of the sport - can vote against the best interests of their paymasters?

To say nothing of the lead-in discussions of which there were many, which can have a big influence on the shape of the final report and voting.

World Sailing's solution to that is to have all votes by secret ballot. But many would see that as just providing a smokescreen for them to operate with impunity. The disinfectant of transparency is a much better solution.

At governing body, the World Sailing Council level the same conflict of interest issue exists but more diluted. There the representatives like the Events Committee have to vote in the best interest of the sport and are usually excused for the convenient delusion that the best interest of the sport and their country's best interest were always one and the same.

Given that the blessing of Submission M36-18 (one of no less than six submitted by the Chair of the Events Committee) is legit then its chances of being alive in a few days are worse than that of a low flying duck at the start of the shooting season.

The Events Committee decision process has produced a dog that won't hunt.

"Off with their Heads"

Five existing Olympic events were put up for review, and all were beheaded for their past sins. They included dropping the single-handed Finn class and the doublehanded 470 class.

They are the oldest of the Olympic classes and are the most technically challenging to sail. But of course, that also means that the individual crews can optimise the rigs for their weight and stature.

The two windsurfer events stayed in, but the "equipment" will change.

In their place came a raft of five events - most never before seen in Sailing. The explanations of what the Events could encompass was fuzzy logic at best and left most shaking their heads in disbelief.

If the slate is to be taken at face value, and Council is willing, there will be seven single-handed events in the 2024 - two more than on the sailing slate for Tokyo.

In 2020 the Odd Couples events are the "Mens/Womens Windsurfer Combined" along with the "Mixed Team (two people) Kiteboard" - the explanations for both are vague and include various options nothing that is tried or definitive under World Sailing's auspices.

The Mixed Kite event involves a male and female competitor from each nation competing and combining their scores. The three windsurf/kiteboard events will be sailed away from the Olympic marina in an attempt to go after the Reality TV/Surfing channel market.

IOC policy clash

The proposed events are at odds with the IOC's position which essentially requires an event to be recognised as being part of a world championship, so they have credibility with other medal events in the Olympics.

That IOC policy preserves the Olympic gene-pool and protects the Olympic program from "Eddie the Eagle" type events.

To be charitable the report of the Working Party to advise and guide the Events Committee was long on opinion and short on hard data and fact. As a throwaway line, it was noted that their options for 2024 excluded people at the "extreme end of the size range....particularly acute for men over 90kgs."

There was no consideration of the level of the investment in the current classes - the Finn, RS:X and 47.

That's investment owned and paid for by the sailors, but slaughtered by World Sailing in the name of the four IOC gods of Gender Equality, Universality, Innovation and Youth Appeal.

The 470, in particular, has a strong take-up in many of the Emerging sailing nations. A chat to the builders reveals where all the new boats are headed - into the Asian countries and others of that ilk - where the class works well as the two-hander for those of less than average weight.

Also getting topped are two strong sailor run organisations structured in the old democratic style, which had been able to keep the boats and gear updated with current technology.

Both organisations are set up to run events and control the class, not as some commando-style team to deal with Olympic flare-ups.

Just add water and stir

In the place of the Finn and 470 come classes some of which one suspects don't even exist at this stage of the Olympic cycle.

It was just two Olympic cycles ago that Women's match racing came into the 2012 Olympic Regatta, with a sound base of data and known expectation. But the event never really worked in the Olympic context and only lasted a single cycle. The new events are well below even that standard of road-testing.

For some reason both two person dinghy events have been dropped and switched for a One Person Short Course for each gender, using a new class. In our experience, no class races at a world championship level with this style of racing. Maybe it would work in Lasers, but in single-handed trapeze boats as part of the narrative suggests, it is a nonsense.

The narrative goes on to say that the class will be suitable for sailors with a weight range outside the ideal physique for the retained singlehander (Laser/Laser Radial).

For males, this can either be for a group that is lighter than 70kgs for males or more than 85kg - if the latter - why drop the Finn and all the legacy and investment in that class. The preliminary specification for the class says it "should offer configurations that allow equipment to be tailored to an individual's physique."

Quite what the statement means is unclear. Weight equalisation system was tried in the 49er and Laser5000 classes in the selection process in the early days before the selection of the 49er as an Olympic class.

The marvellous Frank Bethwaite (who was in league of his own when it came to analysis and design in the dinghy classes) had a system of adjustable wings on the 49er, but it was dropped for a single setting a year or so after the boat went into production. If anyone could have made this system work, it was Frank.

The Laser 5000 system involved the carrying of lead in racks and adjusting for crew weight equalisation.

A possible option for the women's class is the foiling moth, and that could also be an option for men if the Laser-lite weight group were the target.

But taking that branch in the Event decision-tree would completely exclude males weighing more than 85kg from the Olympic regatta. While some will argue that the fatties could try kiteboarding - but that is a no-exit route from a sailing career perspective. There is no cross-over of skills from a kite to professional racing in the Volvo Ocean Race, America's Cup and other events.

It is a fact of sailing life now that the Olympics are no longer a pinnacle event for male sailors and are a stepping stone en route to a professional yacht racing career.

The Finn and now 49er are the two major sources of top-tier professional sailors, for the reason that both require a degree of rig tuning and sail adjustment, plus the bigger sailors/grinders come from the current heavyweight men's singlehander.

Can 40,000 sailors be wrong?

The elephant in the room remains the fact that in less than two weeks 20,000 sailors have signed a petition wanting the current 2024 Olympic event selection process stopped. A further 20,000 did the same for the retention of the RS:X in a petition started in mid-January.

Can 40,000 sailors all be wrong and 17 Event Committee members be right? It would seem so.

Further, six recent Olympic medalists plus the top Olympic classes coach have signed an open letter published in the authoritative Seahorse magazine.

There seems to be little support for the myriad of changes outside the hallowed halls of World Sailing and a group of professional class administrators.

The moves are at odds with claims by World Sailing's associates that change is required to comply with International Olympic Committee requirements, as this short 40-second video of out-takes from the IOC Sports Director, Kit McConnell confirms.

World Sailing has changed from a body which used to be run from a bottom-up basis - where sailors and clubs could test ideas and boats and then push these through the various layers to eventually get international sanction or adoption from the World body.

The development of umpiring is a good example, along with the development of classes like the Laser and all of the other international status classes.

Now World Sailing is a top-down body, prescribing the shape of the sport and being prepared to evoke radical change - which in the current situation involves a change out of 50% of the Olympic fleet in a single stroke.

In cricket and other sports, this level of detachment between coaches/management and the players is referred to as "losing the dressing-room".

Over the past couple of weeks, World Sailing has shown that it has clearly lost the dressing room of Olympic Sailing and probably the grass-roots of the sport it claims to represent.

The only two outcomes are that you either attract a new group of sailors who subscribe to the current organisation's practices, or you replace the current management with people who are more attuned to wishes of the sport.

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