Maybe we're too focused on Olympics


SAILING: LAST WEEK, just as Ger Owens announced his intention to campaign a 470 for a possible third Olympic regatta, the Irish Sailing Association (ISA) made a written proposal to get rid of that dinghy from the Olympic line-up.

The Olympic classes are in a state of flux since the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) signalled its intent to ditch the Star keelboat for the 2016 regatta.

There is a fear too the sport itself might be cut from the Olympic Games as pressure mounts to cut costs and athletes. The situation is causing some countries to examine their own Olympic involvements.

There is no doubting the Olympic circuit remains the pinnacle of the sport but there’s little doubt either of the appeal of new alternatives being dished up.

ISAF’s own sailing world championships is gaining momentum as the event to win.

From the small pool of pro-crews available in this country it’s noteworthy Ireland’s Damian Foxall and Justin Slattery found success entirely outside of the Olympic environment.

Last year, at international cruiser level, the Irish Cruiser Racing Association (ICRA) brought home the Commodores’ Cup.

Sailing has historically had good links into the International Olympic Council (IOC), and will be making its 26th appearance on the Olympic programme in 2012. Sailing scores well on some of the criteria for being kept as an Olympic sport, but is weak in important areas such as spectator and broadcast revenue, and costs.

It has a strong European following but participation is low in Africa and Asia.

Still, 54 countries have been exercised enough to make submissions to ISAF on the 2016 Olympic sailing competition.

The loss of the Star keelboat would be a near fatal blow to Ireland’s main hopes, with the Peter O’Leary and David Burrows partnership seen as medal hopes next year and in 2016 too.

In its written submission the Irish authority said the men’s keelboat should stay but it has also opted to keep five classes where there is no Irish sailing development.  However, this is partly because the rules do not allow for partial submissions, but require a full slate of 10 classes.

Ireland has never had a sailboard, never had a Tornado catamaran and never had a women’s keelboat. We have not mustered a women’s 470 team since Atlanta so it is unclear where an Irish women’s skiff the ISA has proposed is going to come from.

The ISA have proposed the following slate: Men’s Board or Kite Board – Evaluation; Women’s Board or Kite Board – Evaluation; Men’s 1 Person Dinghy ­ Laser; Women’s 1 Person Dinghy ­ Laser Radial;  Men’s 2nd 1 Person Dinghy ­ Finn; Men’s Skiff – 49er; Women’s Skiff – Evaluation  Men’s Multihull – Tornado; Men’s Keelboat – Evaluation ; Women’s Keelboat – Elliot 6m.

The reality is domestic sailing is so far removed from these classes some now question the pursuit of the Olympic dream at all but that’s a decision that would have a major impact on government funding which heavily supports Olympic involvement.

It’s too narrow to measure medals through grants alone and any withdrawal would have other consequences too.

Olympic involvement begets better standards nationally, as there is trickle back of knowledge through coaching. The Sports Council high-performance grant given to the ISA is ring-fenced for Olympic sailing and its high-performance programme runs to 400,000 per annum.

It’s good State money that is bearing fruit at junior and youth level. Finn Lynch was second in the Topper World championships last year. Philip Doran won an under 17 Laser Radial World Championship. In the same class, Olympic campaigner Annalise Murphy has also won a world under 21­title and recent performances at senior level, including a fourth in Miami in January, are very encouraging.

Ireland has participated at every Games since London 1948, except Mexico in 1968. Malahide’s David Wilkins and Jamie Wilkinson won Olympic silver in 1980 but since then a top-eight Olympic finish in any class has eluded us.

Ireland is not alone in suggesting changes that defy historical results to the Olympic regatta; in Britain, the Royal Yachting Association is proposing to ditch the Star too, a class where they have won gold twice, and silver once in the last six games and which provides a progression path for their very successful Laser and Finn programmes.

Olympic success is counted only in medals but the sailing here has been thriving without it.

Internationally there are now other opportunities, some with more appeal.

The Volvo Ocean Race (with Irish Government involvement running to €4 million), the America’s Cup and the World Match Racing tour now provide professional outlets for a handful of Irish sailors who might previously have only been found on the Olympic circuit.

What’s important for a small sailing nation with limited resources is a plan that can bring home results, even if this means moving outside the Olympic circle.