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Olympic postponement creates additional challenges for all competing sailors

by David Schmidt 31 Mar 2020 18:00 BST July 23 to August 8, 2021
Ready Steady Tokyo, day 4 © Jesus Renedo / Sailing Energy / World Sailing

After much debate, hand-wringing, tough decision-making, and ample outside pressure, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese organizers of the XXXII Olympiad have announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be postponed by one year due to concerns about the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and the risk of spreading the virus amongst competing athletes, visiting spectators, and Olympic tourists. Instead of an opening ceremony on July 24, 2020, sports fans will now have to wait until July 23, 2021 to see international flags of many colors unite for friendly competition amongst the world's best athletes.

While this is good news in terms of the international community's attempts to contain this nasty and life-threatening disease, the decision carries significant consequences for the athletes, not to mention for host country Japan.

The first question to be hoisted up the proverbial flagpole involves athlete qualification. Many international sailors have already earned their qualifications for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (for example, of the ten Olympic sailing classes that will be competing at the XXXII Games, the USA has already selected sailors and/or teams for six of the classes that the country has qualified for), but will these berths to the Games be honored come 2021?

The answer, as of this writing, is a solid "maybe".

Critically, each country must qualify for a spot on the starting line at an Olympic sailing regatta before individual athlete berths can be decided. This means that each nation's governing body has sway over which athletes compete. Again, using the USA as an example, Section 13 of US Sailing's "Athlete Selection Procedures 2020 Olympic Games" states:

"Any change in the selection procedures caused by a change in IOC, IPC, PASO, as applicable, and/or World Sailing rules and regulations will be distributed to the affected athletes immediately. The selection criteria are based on the latest information available to US Sailing. However, the selections are always subject to unforeseen, intervening circumstances, and realistically may not have accounted for every possible contingency."

Hence, the grey area.

Obviously, US Sailing and sailing's other international governing bodies strive to be fair to the athletes who have worked extremely hard to earn their spot on the starting line of any Olympic regatta. But, at the same time, these same bodies want to collect as much Olympic hardware as possible at each medal ceremony.

In the case of the eight American sailors who have already qualified to race in six Olympic classes - namely Pedro Pascual (Men's RS:X); Farrah Hall (Women's RS:X); Riley Gibbs and Anna Weis (Nacra 17); Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea (49er FX); Charlie Buckingham (Laser), and Paige Railey (Laser Radial) - odds are good that they will still be going to Japan in 2021, barring unforeseen injuries, illnesses or other uncontrollable events, of course.

(Editor's Note: the USA failed to earn country qualifications in the 49er class but the USA will be able to send representatives to Tokyo if another nation forfeits their position, a wildcard that could come into play given the now-rattling dice generated by COVID-19 pandemic.)

But what about the other three Olympic sailing classes in which the USA has qualified but not yet selected athletes?

The short answer is "wait and see", given that all qualifying regattas for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics have now been postponed.

While this isn't rosy news for the competing American Finn, Men's 470 and Women's 470 sailors who likely wanted to get the stress of qualifying over with as soon as possible, this could prove to be a good thing for the USA's medal chances in these classes. As with any sport, sailors need to be at the absolute peak of their game to be medal contenders, and this (metaphorically) delayed harbor start could allow the cream to further rise to the top.

As for the USA's already-qualified sailors, their mission now revolves around staying healthy and fit, while also trying to stay fast on the water.

In the case of Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, who won an epic battle to earn their tickets to Tokyo, the go-fast duo is managing the situation as best they can, given the shelter-in-place orders that many global citizens are now living with. In a blog post, dated March 19, the two wrote:

"We are currently working on adapting our training by getting creative with our coaches at Sailing Performance Training to design home gym workouts, reviewing video and GPS tracker data, and learning new sailing skills like weather with Chelsea Carlson. To stay focused, grounded, and prepared, we're mental training with our sports psychologist as well. We are also in the process of designing new drills to simulate racing scenarios we'd like to improve on that we will use when we get back on the water again."

Other international 49er sailors have adopted similar-but-more-creative training regimes: see www.sail-world.com/news/227864/How-to-video-49er-training-in-your-garden

Similar sentiments are likely playing out amongst many qualified international Olympic sailors and teams. Still, all Olympic hopefuls and qualified sailors will have to live with an additional layer of stress as they hunker down and hope that COVID-19 doesn't become an additional factor in their ability to perform come July of 2021.

To that end, the words of Lao Tzo, as written in the Tao Te Ching come to mind: "Over-sharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt."

Here - as with any regatta - each individual sailor or team of sailors must determine their own best timeline and training regime in order to achieve peak fitness and sailing smarts come July 23, 2021. And while moving goalposts make this challenge harder and the path to Olympic glory significantly steeper, one consolation is that all athletes competing for gold at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics are riding this same rising and falling tide.

As for Japan, the country has faithfully invested billions of dollars in building the infrastructure necessary to support the 2020 Games. The good news here is that these same investments will last the length of the postponement, however an additional year is a long time for this nation to wait to see the returns on this investment. That said, given that Japan has the world's oldest population (according to the United Nations, 33 percent of the Japanese population is 60 years old or older) - therefore making them potentially susceptible to especially high mortality rates from COVID-19 - this is a critical precaution that is likely both publicly and politically necessary.

Sail-World wishes all Olympic sailors the best of luck as they train and prepare for the XXXII Games. But, more importantly, we sincerely wish that all governments will work quickly, efficiently, and in unison to curb the spread of COVID-19 so that life as we know and love it can return to its regular cadence quickly and with as little pain and suffering as is humanly possible.

May the four winds blow you safely home,
David Schmidt

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