Mat Belcher initiative shows up lack of pathways for top talent here
Mat Belcher (left) shows the Olympic gold medal he won in the men’s 470 sailing event at London 2012. The Australian has now signed up to skipper the Australian challenger in the next America’s Cup. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images
The recent announcement that the Australian challenger for the next America’s Cup will feature Olympic Gold medallist Mat Belcher as skipper resonates with the on-going debate concerning high-performance sailing in Ireland.
A general review of the Irish Sailing Association is underway but there remains concern at the scale of funding dedicated to Olympic-level sailing relative to the main domestic sport.
The Australian announcement is of interest because the development is closely associated with their national federation’s high-performance programme.
Belcher’s appointment mirrors other successful sailing nations, where Olympians can continue their careers in other high-performance sailing arenas. Not only does a pathway exist for talented athletes, it is sustainable and transferable, with attractive incomes to be earned.
Meanwhile, the Irish pathway programme has become well-established with a correspondingly significant improvement in the performance of Olympic sailors, most notably at the London 2012 Games.
Entry to the pathway begins at junior level and rises to International Youth level before the narrower stream of Olympic hopefuls.
But in sharp contrast to other – admittedly bigger – nations, Ireland’s Olympic veterans tend to not only end their high-performance sailing entirely, but often stop competing in even club level events.
The lack of a safety-net has been acknowledged by the ISA but it also extends to those who didn’t quite make the cut.
After substantial investments, principally by parents in developing talented young sailors, the pathway for this larger group leads to a dead-end.
But while the Olympic agenda itself ticks the boxes for sporting purists, expensive yachtsand other paraphernalia pertaining to the sport are not in wide demand outside the sport’s immediate following.
Where the review of the ISA and the sport in Ireland can score is by applying the high-performance benefits elsewhere, in both the amateur and professional arenas.
Delivering such benefits means developing keelboat and handicap racing at clubs, ensuring a suitable range of dinghy classes to meet demand, and re-kindling offshore racing leading to an integrated strategy.
Such a broader pathway would offer real national economic benefits and job creation between marine leisure tourism, light industry and related trades in addition to meeting goals for sports participation.