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Irish Sailing’s Unhealthy Imbalance With The Olympics Is Exposed In Analysis Of Tokyo Problems

12th February 2022
When the going was good…,Sean Waddilove and Rob Dickson right in the frame on Day 4 of the Tokyo Olympic Regatta
When the going was good…,Sean Waddilove and Rob Dickson right in the frame on Day 4 of the Tokyo Olympic Regatta.

Sailing needs the Olympics much more than the Olympics need sailing. And in Ireland in particular, sailing’s inferior position in this uneven relationship is exacerbated by the national obsession with sport in all its forms, and the often cringe-inducing neediness which the organisers of the various international sporting disciplines will manifest in seeking success abroad in order to get public attention, approval and financial support at home.

For the reality is that sailing is a complex vehicle activity that is too difficult of comprehension for the casual observer to be drawn enthusiastically to it as a spectator sport, as they see it as no more than a briefly-glimpsed pretty picture on a summer’s day. This is an interest barrier that is heightened by sailing’s total reliance on wind and weather conditions. A sailing match in light winds is fascinating for those taking part, but it makes for switch-off live television. Thus as far as the general public is concerned - and with them the politicians who try to anticipate and meet their interests and expectations - sailing only makes sense, and briefly provides general interest for the population at large, when they can easily relate to it through five simple and recognisable metrics.

REQUIREMENTS FOR SAILING TO HAVE POPULAR INTEREST

These are (1) The winning of prestigious internationally-recognised prizes, at its most clearcut in Olympic medals. (2) The probable involvement of seemingly vast sums of money. (3) The participation of celebrities famous for their pre-eminence in something other than sailing. (4) The existence of real danger, with the possible and occasionally fulfilled risk of drownings, and (5) The achievement for the first time of some feat of easily-comprehended seagoing historical significance. To that list could of course be added “a whiff of scandal”, but that applies to any human activity, and scandal-addicted saddos really should get themselves a life.

Be that as it may, because the Olympic Games are officially hosted by cities rather than nations, Olympic sailing events will almost inevitably be located at waterside centres which are at some distance – sometimes a very considerable distance – from the main city-located theatres of sport, emphasising sailing’s distancing from central areas where arenas attract large crowds to witness individual athletic achievements which most clearly typify the Olympic ideal as conceived in ancient Greece, and revived there with the beginning of the modern games in 1896.

For sure, even then just what is entitled to be thought of as an Olympic sport had been expanded, and sailing had been included in the proposed 1896 list. But when it didn’t happen, this attracted so little attention that the historians cannot agree whether or not the reason was because of a lack of suitable boats, or the persistence of a gale-force-plus Meltemi in the Aegean Sea.

An Irish link to early Olympic sailing success. The International 8 Metre Ierne, designed and built by William Fife in 1914 for Arthur Sharman Crawford, Commodore of the Royal Munster YC in Cork, was one of the first of her class to carry Bermudan rig. However, when she won the Gold Medal in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, she was Norwegian-owned.An Irish link to early Olympic sailing success. The International 8 Metre Ierne, designed and built by William Fife in 1914 for Arthur Sharman Crawford, Commodore of the Royal Munster YC in Cork, was one of the first of her class to carry Bermudan rig. However, when she won the Gold Medal in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, she was Norwegian-owned.

Nevertheless, it figured more prominently in subsequent Olympics, but increasingly it had to be at some distance from the host city.

Yet even then, people would not have paid money to pile into vast arenas to watch sailing events, had it been made possible in some artificial way. And it is only in special and usually rather artificial circumstances that it can provide anything of interest for the betting industry, while any attempts at televising it results in a very distorted version of the sport as usually enjoyed by its participants.

SAILING AS A PERSONAL AND ABIDING PASSION

Yet for a small but not insignificant segment of the population in Ireland, sailing is their personal and abiding passion, they’re convinced we should regularly give of our best for Olympic participation, and in order to get a share of governmental sporting expenditure for what can be an expensive activity when pursued at a global level, they have to be prepared to encourage their national authority in developing a very elite high-performance division which can bring home universally-recognised evidence of global success.

Ronnie Delaney, Olympic Gold Medal athlete in 1956, with sailing Olympian Saskia Tidey at the NYC Reception for Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy in August 2016. Photo courtesy NYCRonnie Delaney, Olympic Gold Medal athlete in 1956, with sailing Olympian Saskia Tidey at the NYC Reception for Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy in August 2016. Photo courtesy NYC

To achieve this, nothing is now remotely comparable to the heights of national exultation given to an Olympic Medal. Once upon a time, it was different. When super-runner Ronnie Delaney won his Gold Medal in the 1500m in the Melbourne Olympics on 1st December 1956, it caused turmoil in the newsrooms of the Dublin media – such as it was at the time - for not everyone was even aware he was there, let alone being the best in the world.

Then when David Wilkins and Jamie Wilkinson won Silver in the Flying Dutchman in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (with the sailing at Tallinn in what is now Estonia, but that’s a story for another time), everybody was well clued in to what was going on for the FD duo. Nevertheless, their reception home was a very genteel little ceremony at David Wilkins’ home club of Malahide.

Perhaps a quiet little celebration is in order….? 1980 Olympic Silver Medallists David Wilkins (Malahide) and Jamie Wilkinson (Howth) are welcomed home. Photo at Malahide shows (left to right) Bill Cuffe-Smith (Commodore HYC), Jamie Wilkinson, Peter Killen (Commodore MYC), David Wilkins, and Paddy Kirwan, President, Irish Yachting Association.Perhaps a quiet little celebration is in order….? 1980 Olympic Silver Medallists David Wilkins (Malahide) and Jamie Wilkinson (Howth) are welcomed home. Photo at Malahide shows (left to right) Bill Cuffe-Smith (Commodore HYC), Jamie Wilkinson, Peter Killen (Commodore MYC), David Wilkins, and Paddy Kirwan, President, Irish Yachting Association.

HUGE MODERN GROWTH OF PUBLICITY FOR ALL SPORTS

However, fast forward 46 years, and the 2016 Olympics are being held in Rio de Janeiro which – despite being one of the most dangerous cities in the world – is also one of the most spectacularly beautiful, with the singular advantage for sailing that its Olympic events can be staged virtually within city limits, so much so that it was actually easier to personally watch the sailing than almost any other contest.

So when Annalise Murphy won her Silver, it was like a dream come true not only for Irish sailors, but for all Ireland. We were still recovering in our own accentuated way from the horrors of the global economic crash of 2008-2011, while Murphy had to overcome her personal setback of slipping from a seemingly certain medal to a fourth in the 2012 Olympics. So this was magic. The entire country cheered.

Absolute magic…Annalise Murphy wins Silver at Rio, 16th August 2016.Absolute magic…Annalise Murphy wins Silver at Rio, 16th August 2016

Thus her welcome home to Dun Laoghaire and her own base of the National Yacht Club just five days after winning was a glorious gala occasion on a scale never witnessed before in Irish sailing. And inevitably it raised the stakes for the need for further success in the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, for by now – in Irish terms at least – big money was being invested by Sport Ireland in future sailing success at many levels, and most especially in the Olympics.

Just the beginning of something very big. Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy returns to Dun Laoghaire for the beginning of an extended welcome home……..Just the beginning of something very big. Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy returns to Dun Laoghaire for the beginning of an extended welcome home……..

……which finally concluded far into the night with a rapturous reception from a crowd from all over Ireland packed in at the National Yacht Club……which finally concluded far into the night with a rapturous reception from a crowd from all over Ireland packed in at the National Yacht Club

The Olympic sector of Ireland’s performance sailing became a voracious monster, devouring any rising talent to feed its need for new medal material. This was particularly the case with developing young 49er stars Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove who, with super-coach Tytus Konarzewski, were building a steady programme towards the 2024 Paris Olympics, when the sailing will be held at Marseille.

But then in September 2018, this “Fingal Flyer” crew won the 49er U23 Worlds in Marseille. Big mistake. The Gold Medal and the Marseille location were just too much temptation for the powers-that-be. They snapped up the Dickson-Waddilove crew for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics potential lineup, and when Konarzewski’s contract concluded at the end of September 2018, they let him go.



The sheer athleticism of 49er racing is in a league of its own

HIGH RISK POLICY

This was the beginning of a high-risk policy aimed at optimum success in what would be an expensive yet ruthlessly pruned campaign towards a venue at the other side of the world. In the end, the wheels came off so completely that an analytical report was subsequently commissioned from a highly-qualified outside agency. It has been published this week, but in such a redacted form that it’s already creating discussion elsewhere in Afloat.ie which will run and run, both here and at the next AGM of Irish Sailing.

But for those who have already had more than enough of official statements and denials and specialist jargon, let us look instead at the very human story of something which, if it hadn’t happened, would probably have made the publication of doubtless expensive official outside reports unnecessary.

It’s a matter of weight. Just 0.09kgs, or 3.2 ounces in old money. 3.2 ounces, for heaven’s sake……Yet if it hadn’t been for something weighing 3.2 ounces more than it should have done, the rail-roaded young 49er crew, hustled into an Olympics which became even more difficult with the year’s delay through the COVID pandemic which also made Japan an intimidating place to be competing on a socially-distanced world stage, would have returned home with a job well done.

SHARED SENSE OF SHAME

Everybody knows what happened, but that fact is that, had the weight infringement not occurred, the 49er crew were on a roll, they were going to come home with a good result, and a medal was within sight. Yet instead they came home with a 13th in a fleet of 19. Questions Were Being Asked, and our sense of empathy with the young sailors exceeded only the sense of shared shame within the Irish sailing community, that this should have happened in the most prominent setting of all.

Appropriately for the Hellenic-originating Olympics, it was like a Greek tragedy. At mid-regatta, after one of their best days with a 6th and a 2nd recorded, the Irish 49ers were told that all boat equipment was going to have a routine weighing check. The result was a complete shock. Of the nineteen 49ers, two – the Irish and the Brazilian – were found to each have one trapeze harness which was overweight. The maximum permitted weight is 2kg, but while the Brazilian clocked in at 2.3kg, the Irish were just 2.09kg.

Harnessed to ill-fortune ? A 49er’s trapeze harness is the sailor’s most important – and most intimate – item of personal equipmentHarnessed to ill-fortune ? A 49er’s trapeze harness is the sailor’s most important – and most intimate – item of personal equipment

It was absurd. Yet despite re-weighings, the penalties – a massive 20 points docking – stood firm, and with it went any chance of an Irish medal, while equally with it came the expectation of a very serious follow-up enquiry. So how did it happen?

The trapeze harness is the 49er sailor’s most intimate item of equipment. Those of us whose Christmas-gift jerseys are still in the wrapper will have every sympathy with an Olympic sailor who stays with the same proven and comfortable harness long after it has reached an age where moisture absorption into its fabric could be a problem. In fact, as it’s all made from synthetic materials, the idea of absorption would not readily occur.

But the reality is that after a while its protective coating becomes worn and it does permit the absorption of moisture, and thus the meticulous checking of harness weights should be every bit as important as ensuring that other weight-sensitive items are monitored. The harness in question had apparently been comfortably compliant when last seriously weighed. But that may have been as far back as 2019.

DUTY OF MANAGEMENT

However, when it gets to the stage that the campaign is on its way to the Olympics, doing these checks is surely a duty of management. Only two Irish boats were competing in the Tokyo Olympics, and as the Olympic Laser/ILCA and all its equipment were being provided by the host nation, the only boat and equipment package which the Irish squad took to Tokyo was the 49er, a situation which emphasised the importance in this one instance of the most thorough managerial input.

In time, just where the buck stops on this one will need to be resolved. But meanwhile, the partial publication of this report is a painful reminder of the day last summer when the entire Irish sailing community hung its head in shame over an infringement of 3.2 ounces.

Yet life goes on, and we hope to learn. Certainly, we can learn from the way that Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove comported themselves after this monumental setback. Heaven only knows, but it’s beyond imagination, just how they felt on the night after the judgment. But in the morning, they resumed racing with determination and style. They concluded the Tokyo Olympiad with a win in the final race. And it’s now only two years to the Paris Olympics.

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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