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Representation and aspiration

by Mark Jardine 14 Jun 13:30 PDT
Julia Damasiewicz (POL), second place female rider, show just how epic it was to race here on Gran Canaria - 2020 Gran Canaria KiteFoil Open European Championships © IKA Media / Alex Schwarz

A lot has been made of the International Olympic Committee and World Sailing's decisions for the tenth sailing medal at the Paris 2024 Games.

The general feeling is that the slate of Olympic sailing events is now unrepresentative of sailing and sailors, especially if you weigh more than 82kg or sail a keelboat.

For a bit of a recap, the IOC had concerns about the Mixed Offshore Keelboat event, relating to Field of Play security and broadcast coverage, so asked World Sailing to come up quickly with alternatives -which, to their credit, they did in an open and transparent manner - and the proposal of having separate Men's and Women's Kiteboarding events has been chosen.

The Olympics is a spectacle, and in the modern era it is totally reliant on broadcast deals. It is the networks who buy the rights to Olympics coverage who call the shots and tell the IOC, rightly or wrongly, what they want to see on their screens. The IOC then fret about engaging Generation X, Y and Z, the appeal of extreme sports, disenfranchising established viewers and keeping the sponsors happy.

Then there are the goals of keeping costs down and allowing low-cost entry points for competitors. Once any athlete starts to reach the incredible levels required to be an Olympian the costs are now inevitably high.

Combining this is of course an impossible balancing act, but one they try to achieve through negotiation and compromise. In sailing this has resulted in the keelboat proposal going out and the extra kiteboard event coming in for Paris.

There are many examples of other sports where the events themselves aren't exactly representative of how it is enjoyed outside of the Olympics. Take for example the Keirin in Track Cycling, where a field of riders on brakeless, fixed-gear bicycles jostle behind a motorcycle, known as a derny, which gradually increases in speed to 50kpm over three laps, then leaves the circuit as the cyclists then sprint for a single lap to decide the winner. Yeah, that's exactly what I do on my bike down to the sailing club with the family... The bizarreness doesn't stop there either; the sport was developed in Japan around 1948 for gambling purposes!

When it comes to the Olympics, what is important for sailing is appeal. This is one of very few events where the eyes of the world get to see sailing, so we need to make sure it's appealing. The imagery, the athleticism and the speed are all important to reaching a potential young sailor who thinks, "I could do that," and heads down to their local club or watersports centre to give it a go. They may of course end up in keelboats, or weigh over 82kg, but if the Olympics is what draws them towards sailing then we must celebrate it.

I won't go into the finances, or how World Sailing (amongst other sport governing bodies) is totally reliant on the Olympics to stay solvent - that's for another time.

America's Cup defender turmoil

Another of the events which puts sailing in front of the world is the America's Cup. What is seen by many as the absolute pinnacle of the sport is an expensive game, and the current holders of 'The Auld Mug' are in need of funding to ensure their team mount a credible defence.

The New Zealand team have quite simply been awesome over the past two America's Cup cycles. At the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda they out-thought their opposition, surprising all with their 'cyclors' and implementing an incredible control system for the complex wing sail and foiling ride height on the 50ft catamarans. Their performance, bar a dramatic pitch-pole against the British team in the Challenger Series, was imperious. In the America's Cup match itself they defeated Oracle Team USA 7-1.

The 2021 defence was closer against the spirited Italian Challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, but once again they went on to win by a comfortable margin of 7-3. The AC75 rule was already outlandish, but the Kiwi boat was a different level of radical. The team is known for thinking differently and then implementing that direction with purpose and resolve. Quite simply they are outstanding.

What the New Zealand team now need is money, and lots of it. Their superstar sailors and design team are hot property around the world with those who would like to bring the America's Cup to their shores, and right now the feeling is that the New Zealand Government and the team's sponsors won't stump up enough to keep America's Cup hosting in Auckland.

In the America's Cup each team represents a yacht club, and many of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron members understandably would prefer the 37th America's Cup to be hosted on their shores, by their club. A meeting at the club on Tuesday should shed light on how negotiations are progressing, but in the meantime some of the club's members are attempting to call for a Special Meeting to discuss the perceived direction of Team New Zealand.

Much has been written lately on this subject, but's New Zealand editor Richard Gladwell is keeping a level head, reporting the facts as they are on the matter and avoiding much of the speculation that abounds: most recently his article addressing insinuations on the retirement of Sir Stephen Tindall as Chairman from the Emirates Team New Zealand Board.

In Sir Stephen's statement he said: "I can categorically confirm that my retirement as Director of Emirates Team New Zealand has absolutely nothing to do with the whereabouts of venue for the 37th America's Cup. I am offended that [person's name redacted], without speaking to me would represent my retirement in such an uninformed manner to suit his own agenda and it would appear that of the [entity's name redacted].

"As a long-term director of the team I completely understand the commercial realities of keeping the team operational and funded to be able to defend the America's Cup and this is the number one priority for the team. The challenges of funding the team are even greater in a Covid-ravaged world."

"The decision on venue is related directly to the need to keep the team financially viable but of course it is mine and everyone else at ETNZs preference to hold the 37th Americas Cup in New Zealand."

"But if the team aren't able to defend the Cup due to lack of committed funding, then the staging of the event becomes something of a moot point."

Just as with the Olympics, a tricky balancing act is needed by those in positions of power. Grant Dalton is the man at Emirates Team New Zealand who needs to have steady hands and nerves of steel during negotiations with the various parties involved.

So why am I talking about the Olympics and the America's Cup when my focus so often on the grassroots end of the sport? Aspiration is the key. As with all sports, young sailors do look up to our Olympic heroes, the America's Cup teams and the personalities who rise.

At the end of the day, the equipment which is used in sailing is the window dressing. It needs to be eye-catching, it needs to look spectacular, and it needs to allow young sailors to believe they can do it. But it is just window dressing to the sailors themselves and the rivalries that develop.

The Olympic and America's Cup teams then need to remember to allow their sailors the freedom to speak openly on TV. An undoubted highlight of the last America's Cup was listening to Francesco 'Checco' Bruni and Jimmy Spithill aboard Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. They spoke with passion and were genuinely engaging - this is what will attract new sailors to the sport.

So, my message to the next Olympic and America's Cup sailing stars, regardless of the boat or board they are on, is 'be like Checco'.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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