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Gladwell's Line: End of the Golden Era of Olympic Sailing?

by Richard Gladwell, 27 May 2019 20:26 PDT 27 May 2019
The Laser and Laser Radial were confirmed as the 2024 Mens and Womens One Person Dinghy, but they have until August 1, 2019 to get an Olympic Contract negotiated - Laser - 2019 European Championship, Porto, Portugal - May 2019 © Joao Ferrand - Fotografia

After the conclusion of the 2019 round of European Championships for the Olympic classes, New Zealand is one of several countries who are well positioned with just over 12 months before Tokyo2020, and the Olympic Sailing Regatta at Enoshima.

But while the sailors were competing in Weymouth and Athens the Mid-Year Meeting of World Sailing resolved none of the major questions over the seven Events/Equipment that will change for 2024 in Marseille.

The NZL Sailing Team set itself nicely for the 2020 Olympics winning four medals from six events on the European Championship circuit.

The Kiwis are one of just four nations that are sitting on a 50% or better medal conversion rate - based on results from the just-concluded round of European championships for the Olympic classes.

The two Kiwi crews that did not make the podium were fourth and seventh in their fleets - still a very creditable performance, where the target at this stage should be a top ten finish. Arguably that makes you medal capable in some systems. The Dutch have a higher standard - of being capable of a top-eight placing in the Olympics.

Many of the top nations are running multiple crew programs within the one class. Standouts here are Britain with Gold and Silver medals in the Nacra 17, and Silver and Bronze in 49er Europeans. The Netherlands went one better winning Gold and Silver in the Men's RS:X Windsurfer.

As well as the single crew programs in the 49erFX and Men's 470, New Zealand has solid multiple crew campaigns running in four of the Olympic events - the Nacra 17, Men's Laser, the 49er and the Finn. In fact, in three of these events - the Nacra 17, 49er and Finn, the crew who qualified New Zealand was not the top boat in the Europeans. The 2019 Worlds which will be held in Auckland in late 2019 for the 49erFX, 49er and Nacra 17 classes will be a crucial selection event for the 49er and Nacra 17.

Interestingly, The Netherlands, the top Nation at the 2016 Olympic Regatta in Rio, has already made one selection for 2020, with Nicholas Heiner finishing fifth in the Europeans. The Finn campaign run by Jan-Pieter Postma, a triple Olympian came to an end when he missed making the cut for the Medal Race.

Looking at the Medal/Event conversion rates, Netherlands medaled in five events and has qualified in five Olympic events for a 100% conversion rate - confirming their place as the top Olympic sailing nation; New Zealand medalled in four events and Olympic qualified in six for a 66% conversion rate; GBR medaled in five events and is Olympic qualified in 10 for a 50% conversion rate; Australia medaled in two events and have Olympic qualified in four also for a 50% conversion rate; Denmark won two medals and have Olympic qualified in five events for a 40% conversion rate. The rest taper away from there.

Unless there is a dramatic result posted at the 2019 World Championships by the 470 Women, Laser Radial, and both the Men's and Women's RS:X, New Zealand will be represented in just six classes in Enoshima - down from seven in 2016 and nine in 2008 and 2012.

So far, the British are the only country to qualify in all ten events for Tokyo from the first round of Qualifying in the 2018 Sailing World Championships in Aarhus in August last year. (Japan is also represented in all ten events by virtue of being the Host country.)

The European Championships were the second opportunity for Olympic Qualification for all nations only for the Finn class. All the other classes are using their 2019 Worlds as the second Qualification Round.

A foggy future

It is generally recognised that it takes six years to come up to speed in an Olympic class - that period starts now in 2018 for those aiming at Paris/Marseille 2024.

Unfortunately, World Sailing seems to be unable to provide much definition about what is happening, six years out. Three new events - Offshore Keelboat, Mixed Two Person Dinghy, and Mixed Kiteboard - have yet to hold a World Championship.

In both the Windsurfer disciplines, the Council refused to endorse the RS:X for Tokyo2024 at the just concluded Mid-Year Meeting at the Chelsea Football Club.

That reversal of the Board's Recommendation should have been no surprise given that World Sailing's Equipment Committee had thrice recommended against the RS:X, but three times the Board rejected that wisdom. This time the current Olympic Champion circulated a letter before the Council meeting questioning why the RS:X was endorsed with such alacrity. That was enough to tip the vote (19-23) in favour of listening to the advice from the Equipment Committee and the top sailors. To cut a long story short, a Windsurfer Evaluation Trial will now be held, which is expected to include two Windfoiling options.

Both New Zealand and Australia spoke up, saying they had low RS:X sailor numbers. New Zealand won't be represented in the RS:X at the Youth Worlds in Poland this July. Neither has anyone qualified in the class for the 2020 Olympic regatta. Yachting New Zealand's Olympic selectors refused to nominate sailors for the 2016 Olympics in the Mens and Womens RS:X despite Qualifying in the first round in 2014 at Santander, Spain.

Yet another Urgent Submission came from the Board to try and put some shape into the Offshore Keelboat event - supposedly to control an "arms race" developing. That piece of wishful thinking fell flat on its face when members of the Equipment Committee, in an informal discussion, commented that it was a futile exercise trying to stop national Olympic programs from spending massive amounts of money on the Offshore event.

No answers were forthcoming on whether the class used for the new Offshore Event in 2024, would also be retained for the 2028 Olympics. There was no answer as to whether a boat selected in December 2023 as proposed by the latest World Sailing would be able to be built and brought up to Olympic competition standard in six months.

Neither could they say if the Offshore event would be like the other Olympic classes - organised around a specific class. Or, if it was more a general test of offshore racing expertise regardless of the chosen class. On the latter basis, every class would change every Olympic cycle.

There was also a deathly silence on the question if World Sailing would allow countries to buy existing boats in the chosen class after it is announced in December 2023.

The Mixed Offshore and Windsurfer situations aside, the Council delivered a paddy-whacking to the Board and Equipment Committee, when it voted to reject their Recommendation for the RS Aero to replace the Laser/ILCA as the Men's and Women's single-handed dinghy events. The margins of 36-5 and 37-4 in favour of retaining the Laser and its 85 nation contribution to Lausanne's universality score for each sport.

Council's role at the Mid-Year Meeting seemed to be to act as an "Emergency Pull" cord when the Board and Committees had gone off the rails on key decisions and recommendations.

More top sailors are exiting the Finn class, and have closed the book on their Olympic careers.

Latest is Dutch Olympic representative Pieter-Jan Postma who is putting his boat on the market after missing the 2020 Dutch selection in the Finn class. He was beaten in the European Championships by countryman Nick Heiner - who will follow in the Olympic footsteps of his father, Roy Heiner.

Earlier Giles Scott (GBR), the Olympic champion in the Finn class announced that his current Olympic campaign would be his last.

World Sailing concluded its Mid- Year meeting without answers to many of the major questions hanging over the Olympic side of the sport.

The Mixed Offshore and Windsurfer situations aside, the Council delivered another walloping to the Board and Equipment Committee, when it voted to reject to reject their Recommendation for the RS Aero to replace the Laser/ILCA in the Men's and Women's single-handed dinghy events. The vote was by margins of 36-5 and 37-4 in favour of the Laser retention.

At the meeting, World Sailing made the comment and repeated it on their website that all Olympic classes/equipment chosen for Paris 2024 had to have contractual discussions around FRAND (anti-trust or open licence building) concluded by August 1, 2019.

It was not clear how this would apply to classes yet to be selected, or is those classes which are not subject to review in the current Olympic cycle (with the 49er FX, 49er, and Nacra 17) being up for review in 2022 for the 2028 Olympics at Los Angeles.

The 2020 Olympics will be the last with a Sailing Events card that has remained relatively stable for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympiads.

Currently, only three classes are certain to re-appear at Marseille in 2024 - the 49er, 49erFX and Nacra 17. The rest is up in the air due to World Sailing's action of reviewing either the Equipment or Event in seven instances.

That makes planning difficult for athletes and national administrators who need to project funding requirements and succession planning - including bringing new sailors into the 2024 Olympic viewfinder in 2019 and 2020 World Championships.

As mentioned three events have not held a World Championship, and in the four others - Mens and Womens Windsurfer, and the Mens and Womens Windsurfer, question marks still hang over the Equipment to be used.

The state-funded programs dance to the financial tune and timetable of their National Sports Federations. They, in turn, set the deadlines for all sports in the federation to submit their funding, competition and sailors who have committed to the 2024 Olympics and can deliver.

World Sailing appear to have a late-announced, "she'll be right on the night" attitude approach to the 2024 Olympic Events and Equipment, as well as being comfortable with excluding males weighing more than 85kg from the Olympic competition.

In addition, the number of Mixed classes has grown from 10% in 2020 to 40% in 2024.

The upshot is that 2024 Olympic sailing teams for most countries will shrink from the numbers pre-2020.

That, in turn, means funding cuts for Sailing Olympic programs, with the funds saved on Sailing being diverted to other sports who have much more stable programs and haven't gone overboard with Mixed events - three of which have no pathway from the Youth Worlds.

Many countries on the state-funded system for Olympic programs, use some of the money (quite properly) to offset administration costs and overheads which are shared with other aspects of the sport.

A cut in Olympic program funding can be expected to flow into other areas of the sport at a national level - and Sailing as a whole takes a hit. Once gone, it is tough to get back.

Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail before the 2024 deal is set in place, in December 2020.

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