How quick my memory erased the elimination of sailing from the Paralympic Games roster. Settling into the fabulous coverage of this year’s events in Tokyo, I scrolled down to see when the sailing schedule started and was suddenly catapulted back to that ridiculous decision in 2018 to axe the discipline whilst a supine World Sailing stood by and let it happen.
Two years later, fantasies were sold as we elected, or should that be anointed, a new President of our governing body Quanhai Li in 2020 with promises of a concerted effort to get sailing back into the Paralympic Games but maybe I’ve missed something along the way but I don’t see much evidence of any progress being made.
Sailing won’t be on the roster for Paris 2024. Los Angeles is looking shaky in 2028. We are at the mercy alongside several other fringe sports of the International Paralympic Committee and right now, with outstanding events on their programme, why would they even consider sailing? The Paralympic movement moves on at pace and it doesn’t really need the headache, expense or politics of our sport. The tournament is poorer for it. And we as a sport are losing a mighty showcase platform to the world of diversity, inclusion, skill and competition. If World Sailing can’t project Paralympic Sailing then fundamentally it’s the smoking gun for us all to hold them to account and drive the real change that many of us opine about but are toothless when it comes to it.
The wider issue here, and it’s a canary in the mine, is just how fast the Olympic and Paralympic organisations move on from a sport. The power that is held in the imagery and the truly global nature of its broadcasting has the ability to cast sports on the periphery to the dust on the side of the road and if sailing were to lose its status on the Olympics roster, my fear is that it would never re-appear. World Sailing that derives the majority of its income, its very lifeblood from the Olympics, would be defunct and would most likely collapse quickly. Sailing as a sport would be left rudderless and aimless and into the void would be the surfing/kiting/foiling sports that would distance themselves quickly from the old world disciplines.
We bemoan the loss of the Finn but that is just the tip of the iceberg. If truth be known, the class’s insistence of not fronting up against the 470 was its death knell. That situation may never happen again if future IOC committees look at our sport as a whole and in straitened times decide, rather like the Paralympic decision, that the sport can’t reach the minimum criteria for worldwide appeal. Expensive boats being sailed by rich nations supported by semi-governmental patronage or explicit state support won’t cut it in the future Olympic pantheon. Sailing could be out on its ear in a heartbeat.
Now, the circumspect amongst us might actually see this all as a good thing. We might enjoy seeing bloody noses and parachutes being deployed as World Sailing collapses but I’m not so sure. I think having sailing in the Olympics is a great thing. I also think that Paralympic Sailing’s inclusion should be the number one concern of World Sailing as the pathways and opportunities it creates and the trickle-down effect to the grass-roots cannot be underestimated.
At my club in Cowes, we have a concerted disability programme and some of the very best sailors I have ever met regularly compete and beat the able bodied be that in Flying Fifteens, Sonars or specially adapted boats. Sitting on the dock bimbling on my H-Boat of an evening, I regularly see disabled sailors going out and participating at all levels. Why not? It’s now so commonplace that it’s not extraordinary and that’s a sea-change from say twenty years ago.
I feel certain that the great high in Paralympic sailing was the 2012 Games at Weymouth. I may be biased but that was a terrific event. Helena Lucas’s gold medal in the 2.4 metre single-hander with four firsts was sublime. The Dutch Sonar team led by Mischa Rossen were a class apart and won by a huge margin whilst the Skud 18’s were too close to call going into the medal race – eventually won by the Aussies Dan Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch.
And the stories that came back from the waters were inspiring. Not the patronising inspiring that dogs disability sport, but the competitive sport inspiration that is blind to disability and all in a non gender specific competition across the disciplines – that’s to be applauded. Going into the Games there were hot favourites such as the Israeli Sonar Team of Dror Cohen going up against the 2011 GB world champions led by John Robertson and Hannah Stodel. The rivalries and the intrigue were up there with anything that the Olympics could lay down.
And with Enoshima Harbour the absolute perfect venue, we get nothing. In Marseille, again we’ll get nothing. And I fear that at Long Beach, Los Angeles in 2028 we’ll get marginalised again. It’s a dereliction of duty and shameful that our disabled athletes are being marginalised and generations of talent are sitting on the sidelines of the Paralympic movement. It has to change. Backbones need to be found and a concerted, relentless drive by our elected representatives sitting at World Sailing needs to be enacted. Failure to get sailing back on the roster at Los Angeles or Brisbane should be the standard that we hold our Presidents to.
Quanhai Li is in the hot seat now and if he can’t deliver then he needs to do the honourable thing and step aside. Paralympic Sailing is ready to go again and inspire generations of disabled sailors into our sport. Relighting the Olympic pathway is of paramount importance.
If World Sailing’s President can’t deliver, get someone who can.