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The Future of Sailing by Jonas Høgh-Christensen

by Jonas Høgh-Christensen 22 Mar 08:30 GMT
Spectacular finish to Race 8 - 2018 Finn European Championship at Cádiz, Spain © Robert Deaves

Tuesday marked the final day for classes, MNAs, regional groups and World Sailing's 'events committee working party' to hand in their suggestion for future events in Olympic sailing. These submissions will guide the council to make a decision on which events will be sailed at the 2024 Olympics.

I have been privy to some of the working party's working documents and I am concerned for the future of our sport.

At the 2017 World Sailing annual conference it was decided by council that the basis for these events should be:

  • Achieve gender equality at an event an athlete level, including either 2 or 4 mixed events.
  • Offer the best possible value to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to the Olympic Games and strengthen the position of Sailing within the Olympic Games.
  • Ensure that men and women of different physiques have an opportunity to compete.
  • Include both universal events and events that showcase the innovation of sailing and demonstrate the diversity of the sport.

I think the above decisions made by the Council makes sense and will help put sailing in the best possible position for the future, but miss two very important points:

  • Increase participation in sailing by creating a natural progression into Olympic sailing. A red line from kids starting to sail and all the way to Olympic glory.
  • Protect our Olympic legacy by building our sport on top of the legendary sailors our sport has.
To me the biggest misunderstanding, and what evidently is missing from any papers produced by the Event Committee Working Party, is the sailors. What do the sailors want? What classes would they like to sail? How do we create legendary athletes that transcend the sailing community and become household names? Names like Elvstrøm, Coutts, Scheidt and Ainslie.

It seems to me that sailing has lost confidence in itself and, like an insecure overachiever, is scrambling at the end of the night to get lucky. Perhaps we should believe in ourselves and instead focus on tackling the issues that have risen with the increased focus on delivering media attention and spectator numbers. I have said and written this before, but how come we are discussing events and classes as the primary reason on how to survive and not how we present our sport?

I just witnessed the final five races and the medal race at the Finn Europeans and it was epic. Tough as nails, true athletes coming forward to take the podium. And when talking about the podium, have a look at the sailors who were on it. Ed Wright, the winner, is a former Laser sailor and probably the most decorated sailor never to have made it to the Olympic Games. He has been in the class for 13-14 years and is still one of the fittest sailors alive. Nic Heiner, a former Laser World Champion who changed to the Finn class after a serious bid to become the representative from the Netherlands in the Laser in 2016 and Max Salminen, the current World Champion who is also an Olympic gold medal winner in the Star from 2012. This class has over time collected and produced more sailing heroes and legends than any other class and has therefore earned its iconic status in the Olympics.

The sailing was epic due to the choice of venue. Big waves and a lot of breeze. When the discussion on events and equipment is going on, it has never been considered to have a venue strategy in place. Put any class in 15+ knots, sunshine and waves and it looks epic. Do the opposite and any new high-tech class looks boring. Look at the footage from the latest World Cup in Miami – it doesn't get much better than that. But why do we not head to venues that have these conditions more often? It's like having a downhill event in skiing on either the blue slopes or in towns with a high risk of no snow. It just doesn't make sense.

We need to work on getting tracking, onboard cameras and sound at affordable prices. Portray our sport better and in an easier format. By including cheap tracking and using this tracking to reduce personnel cost we will increase the reliability of our start times and execution of events. Again, an area that would improve simply by sailing in venues with higher average winds. The setup in Rio was a disaster and we did a disservice to our sport. We can make it cheaper and much, much better, we just need to invest in it.

I am a big fan of close racing and speed, but very often these two things do not go hand in hand, and the way we have solved it is to make the races shorter and move the course closer to land. The trade-off for doing this is flukier races and the risk that a sailor's result is more influenced by circumstances outside the field of play. Is this a cost we as a sport are willing to take?

I am a massive fan of creating fan areas and fencing off the area of the event to create a sustainable commercial venue - this is how you monetize a festival. I'm all for it, but from a strategic point-of-view there is no reason to demand that this needs to be held on a beach. Beach events will limit the places we can sail and will for many classes create issues with berthing in strong winds, so to me it is counterproductive. If the venue is ideal for a beach berth, by all means go ahead, but it should not be a strategic pillar.

Being from Scandinavia I am all for gender equality, but it is paramount that we not only aim for gender equality at the Olympic level, but also take measures that inspire women to join our sport. With the setup proposed by the IOC for 2024, we will have to do a top-down execution of this strategy but World Sailing and the MNAs should produce a clear plan on how they will secure more female sailors into the sport. Today one in every five sailors is female, let's have a goal to make that one in three and then 50/50.

The working documents I have seen from the Events Committee Working Party simply disregard the decision made by World Sailing's Council to secure sailors of different physiques and abilities to compete. This will surely be a disaster for the sport. Since the 2000 Olympics the average weight of Olympic classes has dropped. At the same time the average weight of fit people in the same period has risen and people are getting taller. First it was the Soling, then the Star and now one of suggested solutions from the Events Committee Working Party is to get rid of the Finn and not even replace it with a boat that caters to larger athletes.

This effectively means that if you are a male sailor of more than 84 kg you do not have a place in the Olympics. That excludes pretty much any sailor over the height of 188 cm. At the same time it also looks like the 470 is on the ropes, which for both men and women will narrow the window of the weight range in which sailors can compete. It will effectively be 70-85 kg for all events for the men and 60-70 kg for women. I hope you start to see what this over time will do for general participation in our sport. A fun fact: Cristiano Ronaldo at 87kg would be too heavy to sail at 186 cm and a body fat percentage of 8.9. Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not even consider it at 97kg and 10% body fat.

Another way to look at it would be to look at which sailors the professional scene picks up at let's say the America's Cup. How many small sailors did you see competing? By the way, there were Finn sailors on every team. By taking away classes that cater to the heavier sailor you will effectively cut the cord between a lot of professional big boat sailing too.

We need to focus on the sailors, we need to focus on creating legends and heroes, we need to have a better venue strategy, we need to commercialize our setup, we need to implement media solutions that deliver our sport in a nice and understandable way.

We have great athletes across our sport. It will not be the equipment that defines them, but their ability to use events and equipment that deliver a clear pathway and progression in their career.

I hope this will inspire World Sailing, the Council and the MNAs to think long and hard, and hopefully come up with a solution that takes the above points into consideration.

All the best

Jonas Høgh-Christensen

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