Irish sailing is on the wrong tack if it is looking to grow the sport purely through its Olympic campaigns. The 34-year lust for Ireland’s next sailing medal is damaging because it neglects so many other areas of the sport.
A new Irish Sailing Association (ISA) board sits down next week to address major issues facing it, not least the fact it has lost a quarter of its members and key yacht clubs are in choppy financial waters. A massive fall off of junior sailors also presents an inconvenient truth that problems lie not with the children but with the paucity of guidance for newcomers.
How Sports Council funding and ISA club affiliation funds are spent is at the heart of the matter. For over a year critics of current policy say there is an 'over-emphasis of the training of selected juveniles by the creation of elite squads of possible future Olympians'.
In round terms, the association turns over €2million per annum, €1m is ring fenced for the Olympic team. Another €1m is provided by clubs and other state grants that say critics is largely eaten up by the bureaucracy of the organisation.
Last month the Irish Sports Council (ISC) announced an investment plan for sport for 2014. Sailing received the third highest level of funding after boxing and athletics.
This state backing is exclusively for Olympic and ‘pathway’ sailors who won 13 medals, eight of which were gold at senior and youth internationals. Its proof the Olympic pathway is working according to team management but claims that current arrangements are creating elitist attitudes that can destroy young dreams are not going away.
There is no doubting progress but if in the pursuit of these medals we hurt the overall development of sailing, what then? It seems this doesn't matter since paymaster priorities are providing politicians with the opportunity to bask in the glory of medals. "Lets change the focus and get people of all ages on the water at entry level and making it as easy and attractive as possible for them to progress to crewing or getting their own boats" says Wicklow dinghy sailor Norman Lee whose timely motion a year ago led to the formation of an independent review of the ISA to come before the board next week.
Best parenting books tell us that with sport it is more important to participate than to win. Not everyone can go to the Olympics and only a handful ever do, so why is all the valuable state funding 'ring-fenced' to exclude the vast majority of juniors?
Concerns of clubs
If the ISA is serious about its new plan it needs to take on board the concerns of the clubs, classes and associations who seek support to rekindle interest in a sport outside the five ring circus.
Why don’t the Sports Council ask the ISA to provide another pathway for growth to allow children and adults to progress in the sport? We live on an island, not one of us living more than 100km from the sea yet how many schools have sailing on the curriculum?
We can no longer afford a policy that benefits an elite few and we should reverse funding to put sailing first and chasing gold second. At this month's ISA agm the commodore of the Irish Cruiser Racing Association (ICRA), Norbert Reilly added his voice. He seeks a fair share of resources for his 7,000 members; 'It's not that the ISA doesn't have a good system, it's just the disregard of the needs of the rest of the sailors', he says.
Leaving aside the efficacy of the Olympic spend, the wider issue of the ISA finding its place in the sport it governs can only happen by charting a new course.