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Double Olympic Champion hits out at Windsurfer Recommendation

by Richard Gladwell/Sail-World/com/nz 15 May 01:17 BST 15 May 2019
Dorian van Rijsselberghe (NED) - RS:X - Day 10 - Hempel Sailing World Championships, Aarhus, Denmark, August 2018 © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

With the Olympic Equipment fires burning on several fronts, the current World and Olympic Champion has hit out over the World Sailing's Board's recommendation to retain the RS:X Windsurfer, provided a new deal is struck with the licence holder.

Dorian van Rijsselberghe(NED), one of the most impressive sailors on the planet has sent an Open Letter to the World Sailing Council members.

Dutch sailors won the Gold and Silver medals in the 2018 Mens World Championship in Aarhus, Denmark, last August. Lilian de Geus (NED) won the Gold medal in the Womens event.

"It is with great disappointment that I note the recommendation from the Board to Council to retain the RS:X without holding sea-trials," he says in the opening summary. "World Sailing has a great opportunity to re-invigorate the sport of sailing and windsurfing and to inspire the next generation. It would be in my opinion a grave mistake for sea- trials not be held."

"I note that it is actually against Dutch interests to move away from the RS:X. We have the current Men’s double Olympic Champion; The current RS:X Men’s World and Vice World Champions and the Women’s World Champion; the Men’s European and Vice European Champions and the Women’s European Champion."

"Despite the dominant position we hold in the RS:X, I believe it is our duty not only to foster talent and bring it to the top – but in fact that the overriding duty is to act in the best interests of the sport and to ensure its future, prosperity and continued success. It follows that the international body, ought have those objectives. Respectfully, if the Council follows the proposed Board recommendation, World Sailing would not be successful at discharging that duty."

He also questions how World Sailing could have made a good decision using the expertise of the panel the world body appointed.

"I am very concerned to note that the Working Party tasked with evaluating the tenders contained no specialist windsurfing experts – no current or former champions or coaches, no elite windsurfers from any discipline, no person intimately familiar with the RS:X at consumer level, no person involved with the production of windsurfing equipment, or any other person who could accurately apprise the Board and subsequently Council on the merits of the proposed bids nor the state of the current Olympic windsurfing events. This is both alarming and disappointing. How could the Board possibly make informed decisions without informed committee members?"

[Working Party: Scott Perry (Vice President), Yann Rocherieux (Chairman, Athletes’ Commission), Dina Kowalyshyn (Chairman, Equipment Committee), Jurgen Cluytmans (Equipment Committee), Ana Gamulin (Constitution Committee), Jaime Navarro (Head of Technical and Offshore), Hendrik Plate (Technical Specialist).]

He notes that "..you [World Sailing] have sought assurance from Neilpryde that other manufacturers be able to enter the market to produce RS:X equipment, but as we will explain below, according to competition law rules, that does not necessarily diminish the existence of a monopoly nor does it it discharge the burden on bodies to ensure that they do not exist."

Further in the letter he cites issues with the RS:X equipment including supply, quality issues and price claiming that a Fin in 2019 costs €500, and that between two sailors they have lodged 10 warranty claims for Fins so far in 2019.

However the thrust of the letter is aimed at the state of Windsurfing in both The Netherlands and New Zealand.

Olympic Windsurfing in the Netherlands – a Case Study

"Holland is one of the most successful windsurfing nations in the world, particularly of late. As noted above we have won gold in the Men’s event at the last two Olympic Games as well as in 1984, and we are the reigning World and European Champions in both the Men and Women’s events. One would think that this would generate a significant amount of excitement and participation in the sport and in the class. But, sadly, this is not the case. The Netherlands currently has 3 Senior Men and 2 Women competing in the RS:X class. There are 5 youth boys, and alarmingly 0 youth girls. When we look at New Zealand, possibly the world’s most successful windsurfing nation, their fleet now consists of 1 Senior man, 1 Senior woman and 0 youth. Similarly, we can look to other strong sailing nations: Australia, 0 men and women competing; Canada 0 men and 0 women competing; the United States, 1 man and 2 women; Brazil 0 men, 1 woman; Germany, 0 men and 0 women; Denmark, 0 men, 1 woman; Norway 3 men, 1 woman; Sweden 0 men and 0 women. Coincidence? It is not."

"It is easy to be fooled by the fact that for example at the recent RS:X European Championships in Spain there were over 300 competitors. The break down of this was 104 Men, 75 Women, and 153 youth (110 youth men, more than the senior men). That is however misleading, and not the full story. The issue both here and with the fleet sizes mentioned in Holland and New Zealand, is with retention of those youth numbers. People leave the class because it is too expensive for what it is, not durable enough and far too physically demanding – heavy both on and off the water."

"The reality is that the senior fleet sizes should be much larger than they are, and the only reason that the youth numbers are actually doing as well as they are is thanks to the saving grace of the Bic Techno – a fun, affordable entry into elite racing which attracts more than 450 competitors to its World Championships. The children have no where to go after Techno as to move onto the RS:X Women’s package as it is the natural stepping stone. They do that for a few years until they realise that the RS:X is too demanding, too expensive and too difficult. The jump from elite youth level to elite senior level is simply too vast because of the physical demands of the equipment – it takes 6 to 8 years for a top youth sailor to begin to break into the top ten."

"By stark contrast, if we look at the foiling fleet in New Zealand, it has exploded. There are 75 plus active sailors and a rapidly growing racing scene with 50 attending the inaugural National Championships. This has developed in the short space of a year. It includes 10 youth sailors and a range of other windsurfers including current and former Olympians, weekend warriors, up and comers and long-retired windsurfer with ages ranging between 9 and 65 years old – all racing on very similar equipment to that proposed by either Starboard or Bow. Similarly, back to the Netherlands, of the 10 Senior sailors who quit Olympic sailing in the last 2 years, all of them are now foiling.'

"Put simply, the youth situation in the Olympic windsurfer is not as healthy as it seems."

Van Rijsselburghe believes the selection of Olympic Equipment is a major influencer in uptake of the sport, citing the popularity of a video he produced in conjunction with two other top windsurfers.

"In April 2018, multiple RS:X Olympic medalist Nick Dempsey together with myself and Antonio Cozzolino, produced a video showcasing foil windsurfing. In the first week that video was seen by 20,000 people. Between Facebook and Youtube the video amassed a whopping 80,000 views. That in itself tell the whole story. As a sport we are always asking: how can we can more engagement? Who can we get more interest in our sport? The answers are clear. Selecting the right classes."

"We as a sport have a unique opportunity to redefine our direction, to unite, to inspire, to engage and excite. These opportunities are rare and need to be seized. For once, perhaps the first time in history, the Olympic windsurfing class can be at the cutting edge of the sport, not 4 years, 8 years or in this case 20 years behind it. Do the right thing."

"Think of the future. Think of the children", van Rijsselburghe urges World Sailing's Council.