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An interview with David Graham, CEO of World Sailing, about Paralympic sailing's future

by David Schmidt 1 Dec 2021 08:00 PST December 1, 2021
Rick Doerr (Clifton, N.J., left), Hugh Freund (South Freeport, Maine, center) and Brad Kendell (Tampa, Fla., right) secure silver at Rio 2016. © Richard Langdon / World Sailing

While I have thoroughly enjoyed my front-row seat to sailing's prime-time show as a longtime yachting journalist, not all headlines are as happy as others.

Take, for example, the International Paralympic Committee's misguided decision in 2015 to remove sailing from the Games following the conclusion of the Rio 2016 Paralympics. Worse still was when the IPC reviewed their decision and—instead of righting a wrong—doubled-down on their poor decision in 2018 ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Fortunately, I was far from alone in my outrage over these decisions. On October 26, 2021, World Sailing announced a major push to reinstate sailing in the program for the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics.

I checked in with David Graham, CEO of World Sailing, via email, to learn more about the organization's "Back the Bid" campaign to reinstate sailing at the 2028 Summer Games.

Can you please give us some backstory on the 'Back the Bid' campaign? How long has this been percolating? Also, what are the key driving forces behind the bid?

World Sailing's desire to be reinstated into the Paralympic Games started at the moment it fell out. We are now well into our campaign for sailing to be reinstated in the Paralympic Games at Los Angeles 2028.

The focus is the participation numbers. In recent history, participation has been on a very positive upward trajectory globally but was hit particularly hard by the pandemic; now lockdowns are being eased, we are getting back to this work.

The 'Back the Bid' #SailtoLA social media campaign is the glue that pulls these efforts together - it is being supported by renowned global sailors, leading figures in the sport and the world's para sailors.

It's been fantastic to see so many people and organizations around the world get behind this reinstatement bid from the beginning, it is very clear that the sailing community and beyond feel strongly about sailing in the Paralympic world - if you haven't already, please back us!:

  • Facebook: @WorldSailing / @ParaWorldSailing
  • Instagram: @WorldSailingOfficial / @ParaWorldSailingOfficial
  • Twitter: @WorldSailing / @ParaWSailing
  • LinkedIn: @WorldSailing

What do you see as the biggest stumbling blocks to getting sailing reinstated? Global participation? Female participation? Youth participation?

LA28 will be exciting - no Paralympic sports have been officially confirmed yet for these Games. We know that major sports are looking for Paralympic reinstatement or entry for the first time into these Paralympics, so we have competition: That's clear.

World Sailing has set out specific priorities to support the growth of para sailing by 2023 - this includes increasing worldwide participation to 45 nations on six continents, increasing youth participation below the age of 30 to 20% of total athletes, and growing the number of female participants to 30%, ultimately, to achieve gender parity. This is mirroring what we are doing with the sport at large.

How does World Sailing plan to expand sailing to 45 countries across six nations? What are the current participation numbers?

The growth of para sailing is increasing at an extraordinary pace.

Over the past five years, the number of nations with para sailors participating in international para sailing competitions has increased by 30%; the number of nations participating pre-pandemic was 41.

We now have 750 para sailors registered with World Sailing, 15% of these sailors are under 30 years old and 20% are female athletes.

At the Hansa World Championships in Sicily back in October, we had 181 para sailors representing 23 nations from six continents including Asia and Africa.

This was one of three World Championships this year where the organizers supplied boats for free to sailors on the Paralympic Development Program taking place before the event as well as a number of emerging countries. In addition, World Sailing supported shipping of boats for some of the sailors travelling from the UK with the help of GAC Pindar. Coming out of a brutal 18 months for global sport, this agreement could not have come at a better time.

One of the barriers to entry is availability of boats. We're now in very positive discussions about boat supply for wider events in 2022 and ongoing.

How does World Sailing plan to increase youth participation to 20% of the total athletes if there isn't an existing athlete talent pipeline in place? Also, what about female participation? How does World Sailing plan to grow this number to 30% (and to ultimately reach gender parity) without existing infrastructure and talent pipelines?

World Sailing has been ramping up its Paralympic Development Programs (PDP) before every major event, as well as in specific global territories to promote growth.

This is really helping sailors to hone their skills pre-competition, and enabling participating nations to grow sustainable training programs - with PDP funding provided by World Sailing we're also helping to get para sailors from developing countries to the start line of competitions as well as in front of coaches.

We'll be continuing to build up our PDP initiatives in 2022 because they are clearly working - our sport is very much alive and kicking because of this, and thanks to the thousands of volunteers around the world who give their time and skills to the PDP.

World Sailing is also focused on developing more female talent from grassroots - our Steering the Course global women's sailing festival covers Northern and Southern Hemispheres and is proving very successful in opening up the sport to women and girls.

We're now looking forward to a very busy para sailing competition calendar in 2022 and beyond.

It's been argued that sailing is a much more expensive sport than other events in the Paralympic Games due to the costs and logistics around the equipment, not to mention coaching, et al. Is this part of the issue?

World Sailing is very much focused on efficient and sustainable logistics - we've just extended our longstanding partnership with GAC Pindar, our exclusive marine logistics and freight partner, for another seven years with a major focus on reducing the costs and environmental impact of logistics in the shipping of equipment to events, in line with World Sailing's Sustainability Agenda 2030.

Thanks to a strong synergy between our Paralympic Development Program, Para Sailing Committee and Equipment Committee we've also developed a series of cost-effective adaptations for para sailors to existing Member National Association fleets - this has dramatically reduced costs and increased inclusivity for para sailors around the world.

This also means that at LA28 the existing sailing fleet at the Games can stay on for the Paralympics and be easily and cost effectively adapted ready for the para sailors.

Is the equipment itself an issue? For example, would the IPC be more receptive to the idea of reinstating sailing if all of the boats featured mixed-sex crews, or mixed-age crews?

World Sailing will certainly be promoting new ideas to the IPC, and mixed crews do offer an interesting dynamic. Watch this space!

Can you please offer some suggestions about how can the rest of the sailing community help support World Sailing's bid to get sailing reinstated to the LA28 program? What are the most effective levers that can be applied by the global sailing community?

To everyone reading - we are urging you to come on this journey, show your support and #BacktheBid!

Creating a groundswell from within our community not only demonstrates that we are serious about Paralympic reinstatement, but shows that we are a very active, truly global and inclusive community.

Our para sailing athletes are some of the most accomplished sailors in the world who are inspiring the next generation.

As we seek to be reinstated into the Paralympic Games the support of the global sailing community is vital - join us on social media, spread the message as widely as possible by word of mouth about our bid for reinstatement, support para sailing athletes as much as possible, and demonstrate that sailing is accessible for everyone.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

The key to all sports in the Paralympic program is that they are representative of society as a whole.

We feel sailing is fully representative and - very importantly - fully inclusive.

Testament to this fact is that we do not distinguish at all between able bodied and para sailors on the start line - everyone is welcome.

Our para sailors also represent one of the broadest ranges of physical and sensory abilities that I have ever seen in global sport.

Recognizing and embracing disabilities outside the Paralympic sphere is not only important to growth and participation worldwide, but also inclusion into mainstream sailing.

We have so much to offer to the Paralympic movement!

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