So the question that gets asked at sailing clubs right around Australia has now been firmly put on the agenda – we find ourselves questioning the relevance of the Olympics and also bashing on the decisions by our international governing body.
And here we sit in our own corner of the world, and ask ourselves, in a day and age where the commercial world is swallowing everything in its path, where does sailing fit in the Olympics?
A number of key sailors on the Olympic circuit recently penned an open letter to the sailing community, asking World Sailing to reconsider its thinking for the Paris 2024 Games, which has placed classes such as the 470 (men and women), Laser Standard (men), Laser Radial (women), the Finn (heavyweight men), and the men and women’s windsurfer under review. These sailors raise important issues about the importance and relevance of the classes they have trained in for years, but let us take a step back for a short time and look at this issue with a wider lens.
For years, sailors have talked about how hard it is to make sailing a television sport, how it is not attractive to sponsors and advertisers, and how the demographic is one of older well-off individuals who don’t need the corporate support. It’s also clear our qualifying process for the Olympics is a shambles, outlined by the last cycle’s decision to not send a 49erFX crew to the Rio Games as they were not seen as a realistic medal chance, despite qualifying to compete. We covered this issue in an editorial piece titled ‘Sold a dream with no reality’.
There are now several professional circuits around the world enabling sailors to make a living in their dream job. The America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race, Extreme Sailing Series, World Match Racing Tour and SuperFoiler Grand Prix are examples of this. They are examples of how corporate funding and an industry-driven product can make it in the mainstream, so why is it necessary to slog away on a four-year cycle, fork out the big bucks and put yourself significantly behind in life.
Not everyone has an opportunity to invest that much time, effort and money and to bounce back on their feet once it is all said and done – and we can all agree that no matter who you are you need strong support networks to undertake this challenge. It’s sad that we don’t have to travel far in our sailing communities to find the stories of those that were unsuccessful and drained their savings reaching for the proverbial brass ring only to fall short and feel like years have been taken off their life. As a parent looking out for your child’s future, especially considering the hours of coaching and travel at youth level that is an investment in itself, wouldn’t you rather choose to steer them towards professional avenues that give them some form of financial security and a return on their investment, away from the Olympic pathway? Sure, it can be argued that many of the professional sailors in our sport today came from Olympic backgrounds, however the only reason they are at this point is because of access to high performance programs through the Australian Sailing Team and Australian Sailing Development Squads. What if this sort of training was available without the Olympics?
When we look deeper into other water sports as examples, there is a lot we can learn about the industry as a whole. Take a look at Surfing Australia as an example. While the jury is still out on whether adding the sport to the 2020 Olympics will enhance the product, surfing has historically survived and thrived through a number of strong industry partnerships, as well as the occasional grant. Its funding ratio is a lot different to sailing, which relies heavily on grants and AOC funding and is therefore built in reverse. Surfing built the Hurley High Performance centre, a facility that has become the centrepiece of Australian Surfing and has yielded numerous World Titles on the WSL.
This example proves sports do not need the Olympics to provide a high level of coaching and support. Why can’t our best Moth sailors head to a World Championship with this sort of backing? Why can’t someone at the top of their game heading to the America’s Cup have access to a training facility like this? Why can’t a local Sabre group or sailing club pay to spend a weekend at the facility and get better at what they do? And why can’t a school group spend a week learning how to sail, discovering a genuine pathway with a job at the end of it if they are good enough? Surely the Olympics is not the reason why everyone sails? It is great to rub shoulders with Olympians, but Mick Fanning has never been to the Olympics yet he is idolised by millions, and Steph Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons have been role models for young women all around the world and have never been to an Olympics.
We have a sailing industry that is bleeding money and struggling to survive as evidenced by depleting membership numbers at grass roots clubs right around Australia and the ongoing struggle for those clubs to find viable revenue streams, but why is this the case when we are a sport that is represented at an event that is supposedly the pinnacle of world sport? This goes to show the Olympics is not a commercial venture, it was originally designed to be a competition for amateurs and not a cheque book war. Hell, the Olympic creed even states that the overriding purpose of the Games is not to win, but to take part. Sailing is awkwardly stuck in the middle, with sponsors struggling to find bang for their buck on an Olympic athlete due to limited brand awareness, airtime or the fact that they are blocked from third-party deals that conflict with the governing body’s partnership and sponsorship deals. They may get 15 minutes of airplay if their athlete wins a medal, but is that really worth it? Considering the dollars that are being spent to get these athletes around the world, it seems like a massive cost.
We’re not knocking the Olympics by any means, but more simply asking the question of ‘if we did not have sailing in the Olympics, would it open up more commercial opportunities for the industry as a whole and drive the direction of the sport?’ … we believe that it absolutely would. The outcome? We end up with a thriving industry that starts to give back to sailing and make more money available to spend growing participation at club level right across the country and not just at the major clubs on the eastern seaboard. Rather than everyone fighting for their slice of the pie, we actually have the opportunity to make the pie bigger. Most businesses in our industry are fantastic supporters of local sailing, however there is no money in it for them and they find themselves doing it purely for love. We need our sport to be industry-driven and to gain rewards as a result, but unfortunately with the Olympics as the centrepiece and a governing body that needs to win medals to keep their 100 staff in jobs, we find ourselves running around in circles and slowly going nowhere as a sport.
Have a think about why people sail in the first place. The Laser isn’t popular because it’s an Olympic class, it’s popular because it’s accessible. The WASZP has exploded onto the Australian Sailing scene in massive numbers and has proven it can harness the troublesome age bracket of 18 to 35. This is because the class itself is accessible, cost-effective and a bucket load of fun. 16ft Skiffs are going through another growth spurt in New South Wales and are again dragging 18 to 35 year olds back to a sport they had since been burnt out of. We ask ourselves the same question of why, and keep coming back to the fact it’s because the clubs are driving the participation and they’re in total control of the outcome, which creates financial incentive to them and the industry itself.
At the end of the day our respect level for Olympians is there in spades, they are fantastic athletes who have worked incredibly hard, spent thousands of dollars, and achieved their ultimate goal. To spend four, eight or even 12 years doing that has to be a brutal existence, so absolutely hats off. But out of the 10 disciplines we race at the Olympics, we see about 16 athletes from our country every four years that get to sail at the highest level – millions upon millions of dollars paid by tax-payers and sailors around the country to service 16 sailors.
Where does a club like Port Kembla Sailing Club in Wollongong fit into this? Or Parkdale Yacht Club in Victoria? Or even the Port Lincoln Yacht Club in South Australia? All these clubs have produced champions at various levels, as well as exported sailors to the professional circuit. Yet on the same note, there is absolutely no high-performance funding available at these clubs for development, they do it themselves and they are surviving… just.
Our opinion is that clubs and sailors should not be looking for handouts from Australian Sailing. The brief for them as a governing body is to win medals and provide education and training opportunities while also having a focus on youth sailing through a small selection of classes that find themselves on the same trajectory to classes raced in the Olympics. This hole that the grass roots of our sport is in, that is growing deeper and deeper from year to year, is not their fault, as they are judged on the outcomes set by their board and that their funding is dictated by. The sooner we all begin to look away from Olympic sailing and align our club structures with what is happening in the real world, the sooner the industry will be able to move forward.
Take a look at the statistics from recent cycles of Australian class championships. The findings are damning.
- 49erFX: 9 boats (18 sailors)
- 49er: 12 boats (24 sailors)
- Finn: 29 boats (29 sailors)
- Laser Radial: 75 boats (75 sailors)
- Laser Standard: 30 boats (30 sailors)
- Nacra 17: 2 boats (4 sailors)
- 470 Men (2017): 5 boats (10 sailors)
- 470 Women (2017): 5 boats (10 sailors).
The RSX even had an integrated event with the race board and formula windsurfing event and was outnumbered greatly by amateur formula and race board sailors.
Now take a look at other senior class options that are not on the Olympic trajectory and the participation rates they create with no support from Australian Sailing.
- 16ft Skiffs: 57 boats (171 sailors)
- Sharpie (2017): 44 boats (132 sailors)
- 505: 39 boats (78 sailors)
- Sabre: 55 boats and sailors in 2018, 65 in 2017, and 130 in 2013
- Impulse: 39 boats and sailors in 2018, 49 in 2017
- A-Class Cats: 51 boats (51 sailors)
- Moth: 38 boats (38 sailors)
- WASZP: 36 boats (36 sailors)
- Etchells: 32 boats (100-120 sailors)
- One-design windsurfer: 49 in 2018, 80 in 2017.
While a number of these classes are down on numbers from previous years and some have shown growth, what it tells us is that Olympic sailing does not keep people in the sport. Unfortunately we find newcomers are not being told of the different pathways they can take in the sport and find themselves with nowhere to go when the youth scene wraps up at 18 years of age. Some go surfing, some play team sports, and for others life just gets in the way, but who can blame them? The absolute last thing most of them want to do once they finish their junior and youth sailing is slog away for four years on a campaign trail that costs a bomb and has an extremely low success rate.
This should be the most exciting time for a sailor, when you’ve finished school and have the opportunity to grab your boat and travel across the country with your mates having the time of your life, all the while enjoying everything a life around the water has to offer. It can be done economically, in your own time, and is a world away from the so called “pathway” we’re all told we need to be on.
Down Under Sail is trying to drive the industry forward and needs your support. If you have retention issues or your class is looking for the exposure it deserves, let us know and we can help. Together with our industry partners we want to drive the direction of the sport and give it back to the everyday sailor.