Sport can be a powerful lever to change. Sport has a way to cut through and clarify whilst being reflective of times, a barometer if you will, of sentiment, trend and progress. If the definition of bellwether is ‘the leading sheep of a flock with a bell around its neck’ then the next America’s Cup, the most high profile of events in our sport, has to be that ewe on steroids striding before the sport and leading it to a brighter pasture. It must not only lead sailing but take the massive opportunity presented by the sheer power of its platform in the promotion of diversity.
Gary Jobson was on excellent form on Friday on the ‘Chairman’s’ Sailing Illustrated Podcast, covering our sport from just about every angle with an acute eye borne from years of real experience on the water and the commentary booth. The voice that captured the America’s Cup, in my opinion, like no other (although the PJ Montgomery fans would heartily disagree), Jobson was clear in his support when prompted to see more female athletes involved in our Blue Riband event but stopped short of mandating quotas.
That’s still seen as a step too far and I note the concerns that many women have about a precedent such as this. I don’t. I disagree with those women who are against quotas whilst being utterly respectful of their views. I believe they should be absolutely mandated in the Cup in order to propel the sport forward. Don’t leave it to the men to decide because they simply won’t and tokenism will abound. The sport will meander and skirt the issue for generations when it could and should be changed now. Right now. Mandate a 50/50 crew for the 37th America’s Cup. Just do it. Just get on with it.
This weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix – the Blue Riband event of the F1 calendar – was a bit of a yawn. Having fallen asleep after about lap four, I awoke mid-race and decided to look up the Hamilton Commission and the Girls On Track programmes – both supported squarely by the ruling body, the FIA. It’s all breathtakingly bold. Sir Lewis Hamilton using his position and Susie Wolff, an ex F1 driver herself, deciding that enough is enough on both race and diversity respectively and driving the agenda to produce real change in the sport. They will succeed. Female motor sports will produce an F1 driver within the next few years. Diversity will be championed and the pit walls and cockpits will continue to encourage and promote with the pathway clearing for those of diverse backgrounds in terms of race and gender. There are seismic things happening at the pinnacle of motor sports. At the apex of sailing, we’re not even scratching the surface.
But this is something worth fighting for. Fail and the America’s Cup will be a victim of cancel culture. It runs the risk of being crushed by the overwhelming force of public sentiment and I worry that the boys’ club at the top are too timid in their thinking to press the button and propel the sport forward.
This is not the time for those in positions of influence to turn a blind eye or sweep issues under the carpet. It’s not the time to think that you know better and dismiss the juggernaut of the zeitgeist with an air of pomposity. The Cup, like everything else, is on a knife-edge of dwindling relevance and needs to be bold to capture the public and breathe life, relevance, hope and progression into the event. Presenting a non-diverse sport at this juncture is suicide. It won’t cut it in the court of public opinion and it has to change – fast.
The great fear is that in a whirl of venue decisions, cost-cutting measures, protocol procedure and politiking, diversity will be an after-thought on the agenda. That would be the biggest travesty and without the luxury of a role model in the form of Susie Wolff or Sir Lewis Hamilton driving the agenda and gatecrashing the committees, it will be left to fawning middle-aged men in suits and obsequious ‘sports professionals’ who are sitting as well-paid advisers to the money men to come up with the goods. The omens and portents aren’t great.
Who is going to be the person who stands up and calls this out? Who’s going to drive the change? The biggest problem is fear. Those in the hotseats can’t honestly believe their luck and will do anything to maintain their status quo. Speak out and sailing tends to cast you one way. It’s a vicious sport in that respect. “Well we know what he thinks…” is the standard comment uttered in yacht club bars with an I-know-better, we-all-know-better smirk. You don’t. You are the problem. “She doesn’t understand…” is another. And again that’s wrong, uttered by buffoons who should be nowhere near the sport let alone the decision-making. It’s nonsense and we all know it. Pricking sensibilities and getting stuff done is what defines great movements and sailing’s top prize needs a giant wake-up call to wake up the sport as a whole.
Success looks brilliant. The pathway there looks unachievable but surely that’s what makes the challenge so attractive? It can be done. It must be done. And slowly at the lower echelons of grand prix sailing it’s coming. Sail GP mandated female athletes and bingo it happened but it can and should go far further. The IOC mandated gender equality and it happened. And our sport is better, far better, for it. We need to project a pathway to the very top in sailing and signpost it in floodlights. Light needs to be shone into the darkness of the America’s Cup and it’s just not good enough to find a bullet-proof glass ceiling right at the apex of the sport. That’s not right and if it has to be mandated – so be it. As I say, get it done. Get on with it.
Failure is shoddy and second-rate. Flying boats at the technological cutting-edge are all well and good but without female and diverse athletes how can the sport grow? Fabulous efforts have been made for years around sailing to encourage participation. The big movement in my lifetime was the drive to getting more youth on the water and that was an undiluted success that I am forever thankful for. I know who did it. You know who did it. They are giants amongst men. The same impetus needs to happen now on diversity – it’s the fight of our lives and it’s the only fight that sailing should now concern itself with. The America’s Cup has to look at the sport it represents and acknowledge the platform that it has as a force for good not just in sailing but in global sport and in global profile.
Shy away from this fight, sweep it under the carpet and promise to do better ‘next time’ and the Cup community fails miserably. The consequences could be too extreme to imagine. Irrelevance beckons. Read the tea leaves of the time and change. Mandate or wallow like a non-foiling AC 75 in a sea of mediocrity.
The sport won’t thank you. Sport won’t thank you. The Cup will be the loser. Mark my words. Just do it.