According to Groucho Marx, “politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” And you can’t help but think that the latest bright ideas from World Sailing are slap, bang in the ‘wrong remedies’ camp. With the contentious tenth medal at Paris 2024 up in the air and our governing body put on notice and issued with a deadline to find alternatives for the Double Handed Mixed Offshore event, what do they come back with? Well no surprise, Men’s and Women’s Formula Kite (the favourites), a ‘safe’ option of Men’s and Women’s 470 and a completely bonkers idea to hold team racing in ILCA 6’s (yes I had to look up what an ‘ILCA 6’ was also).
The jungle drums around the committee are suggesting that the Double Handed proposal isn’t quite dead yet and I hold out some hope that a bit of Gallic influence and World Sailing getting its ducks in a row might just keep this brilliant proposal over the line.
Failing that, it’s a shoo-in for the kites based on cost, accessibility and age demographics. Last night I went onto the 470 Paris 2024 microsite and started clicking on links to builders of the venerable old bath tub. Most didn’t work as the manufacturers had moved on from building the old clunker. But blimey those that did are expensive. It’s almost a specialist build now. Want a top class, Kiwi-built Mackay hull? Get ready to part with the thick end of £12,000 just for the hull and you can pick any monetary number you like for the sails, masts, foils and deck packages you will employ over a few seasons. It’s a money-game pure and simple. And that’s where its Olympic credentials drop like a stone.
The Games simply can’t have the highly rich and most organised nations continuing to dominate the medal podiums. It’s well documented the level of detail and expense that the British Team went to, and are continuing to go to, to secure medals like billy-oh since 2000. That’s not to say that the ‘Golden Generation’ weren’t talented sailors as their success was telegraphed from the early and mid 1990’s British Youth Squads but they knew (and know) that when they lined up on the start-line they had a gun at a knife fight. All credit to them. Those are the rules and that’s the game but what hope do you realistically have if you happen to come from Africa, the Indian sub-continent, America (!) or even some European countries when you have to face-down the likes of Ainslie, Percy, Robertson, Rogers or Walker in their prime with the might of the RYA Performance Team behind them?
The IOC aren’t stupid. They can see the way the wind is blowing in sailing and for good or bad reasons they’ve stuck a spanner in the works. I disagree with their continual drive for youthful television eyeballs – I mean to be honest who even has a television anymore – but they’ve probably recognised that the social media audience is more valuable and that brief snapshot reels are the way to inspire the next generation. Who are we to say that they are wrong? The chances of a teenager saying “I want to do that” are higher with the Formula Kites than the boredom of seeing non-foiling 470s and banzai, bananas racing in ILCA 6’s that literally no-one will understand – not even racing sailors.
However, I strongly feel that the Double Handed Offshore event could be something that really captures attention and is an antithesis to the wham, bam culture of foiling and athletic trapeze boats. It could be something that captures youthful attention. Sailing at night in an event that lasts a few days could actually get the screen-obsessed tracking, debating and inspired.
I remember tucking my teenage son up in bed on the night when Kevin Escoffier’s boat broke up in the Vendee Globe Race and sank forcing the Frenchman to take to his liferaft in the Southern Ocean. We sat and talked about what it must feel like to be stranded at sea, alone, in the dark with the clock ticking to hypothermia. We talked about Jean Le Cam and how if anyone was going to save Escoffier, Le Cam was ‘the man’ and it absolutely inspired him. The next morning we ran to the computer screens to check and for the next month or so, we followed every sked of the race. That’s inspiring. The Olympic Games should think seriously long and hard before discounting the Offshore event.
My sense however is that this is going to go the way of Formula Kite and we’ll all just have to suck it up. The messages I’ve received are resigned to the fact and most are thoroughly disillusioned with Olympic sailing. Full stop. Most would like to see the Finn back in but that’s dead and buried now. The Gold Cup will be a sorrowful event. Tokyo (if it happens) will be the final curtain call and those athletes in the 85kg+ range will be excluded from Olympic competition forever. How we got here was inevitable but sad nonetheless. The Finn class could do no more. The IOC will try and dress it up as progress but it feels anything but.
Sailing is hanging on to Olympic status by a thread – and so are World Sailing.