Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Road Not Taken



After the dismal performance of the US Sailing Team Sperry-Topsider at the Olympics this year (first time the US team didn't medal in sailing since 1936) there has been much idle chatter on the forums as to what went wrong.

Some blame the man leading the team for the last eight years.

Some blame the bureaucratic and inward-looking nature of US Sailing.

Others point to the low levels of participation in and enthusiasm for sailing in the USA as compared to Australia and Great Britain.

Others say that sailing in the USA is only a sport for rich white people.

I was reminded of that photo above. I wonder if things would have been different if that mixed race boy living in Hawaii a few decades ago had turned to look at that boat behind him and asked his Mum, "Can I learn how to sail one of those?"

Maybe he would have won an Olympic gold medal in sailing and inspired millions in the generation that followed him to take up sailing?

I guess he did OK anyway.


22 comments:

Adam said...

It's quite shocking. I was amazed at how badly the US did in Beijing but this is embarrassing. I feel terrible for the team.

I was in Weymouth on Friday. One of the things that struck me was the passionate level of support at the Nothe. The other thing that was markedly different is the way sailing is covered. The BBC did a brilliant job with two top-notch interviewers on the water, great commentary and video. Last but not the least, the sailors are LOVED. Not just Big Ben but Saskia, Hannah, Blithell/Patience, and the rest.

Why is this important? Firstly all this is the shiny veneer on a medal machine. Countries that win have an infrastructure and are managed to deliver the goods. More importantly, as a critical mass they capture people's imagination.

I am gutted for the US sailors but sadly as a body, US Sailing is like watching Team GB in the 70s. Low expectations and a medal count to match.

I have no clue what the solution is but something has to change.

Tillerman said...

It's a bit of a vicious circle. The US Olympic sailors are almost unknown to the general public. I doubt that 98% of Americans could even name one of them. And this in a country which makes huge celebrities of athletes in other sports. The lack of sailing celebrities does not help in inspiring other people, especially young people, to join the sport. The lack of enthusiasm generally for sailing makes it harder to raise sponsorship money for sailors and to have a strong development pipeline for future Olympians. As a result, the US does poorly in the Olympics. And the press then has even less interest in covering the sailing Olympics.

I know my "What if Barack had gone into sailing?" post is a bit crazy and far-fetched. But I just wanted to highlight the lack of sailing "celebrities" in the USA. (Obama was attacked by the McCain campaign in 2008 for being the "biggest celebrity in the world.")

Of course we used to have a sailing president - JFK. But I guess he just perpetuated the myth that sailing is for rich white people.

And we could have had a windsurfing president - John Kerry. But the Bush campaign used a video of Kerry windsurfing to mock him. They somehow managed to insinuate that windsurfing is a hoity toity sport for rich people.

Now we might get a jet-skiing president. God help us!

meech said...

Is sailing the sport of the democratic party? Former prez George W was a mountain biker which to me is a similar sport to sailing. The entry into mountain biking is a little easier however with the average kid being able to at least aquire a beater bike and hit the trail. The beater sunfish or laser requires some investment or community resources. In general, our country is going the other way with the rich becoming richer, and so on. If we want renewed interest in sailing, we need to expose more kids to it. And why? Because it completes equation of healthy minds plus bodies. Heck, sailing provides both!!

Tillerman said...

Good point meech. There's a lot that can be done at the grass roots level to get more kids excited about sailing and to develop their skills irrespective of whether the national powers-that-be are doing a good job in this respect. I pretty much devoted the first 7 years of my retirement to this endeavor, working in two junior sailing programs and running a junior racing series. I don't suppose any of the kids that I taught, encouraged, coached, played with, raced with, ferried to regattas, ran races for, etc. etc. will be Olympic champions but I think some of them will be life-long sailors.

JP said...

One of the critical components in the UK is how many schools are connected to local sailing clubs so most kids have a chance to sail. If you do it via clubs then there isn't that big investment that might put some off.

Sailing hasn't always been as well covered on TV as it has in this games where its all be streamed with AC style overlays to show the positions on the course. It has really helped explain sailing.

It's also helped to have a star on the sailing team - for that's what Ben is. The "battle of the bay between Big Ben and the Great Dane" was a great story, particularly when Team GB won at the end.

Maybe that explains why the flag bearer for Team GB for the closing ceremony will be Ben, which is a big honour given the competition from Mo, Jess and cos.

Roger Jones said...

First, poor old white men sail too. At least I do.

There is certainly the overhang of the "yactche club" set and mentality that turns off some young people. But IMHO the major reason that young people don't stay involved is that they are not put in boats that are fast and challenging - 49er's, moths, etc. At 14 I wanted to crash and burn. The second problem, as we all know, is that watching a race from shore is not very interesting - particularly when there are pretty girls around to watch. Also, in most of the US sailing is a half year sport. Since ice boating is very rare you need to reach out every year and haul the kids back in.

My 2 cents

Tillerman said...

All good points Roger.

The "rich white men" thing is more of a prejudice than a reality. I grew up in a working class family in England in an environment where nobody I knew sailed. But I was always hankering after learning to sail and somehow I made it happen. Reading about British sailing celebrities like Robin Knox-Johnston may have had something to do with it.

And the fact that American kids waste 8 years of their life in high school and college learning to roll tack bathtubs and race short courses is surely part of the issue. We need to get talented kids into high performance boats at a much younger age.

GBR 134 said...

Sorry if I come to this a bit late as a not so glaoting Brit as I was after Beijing. I was directed to this Irish commentator who though a little choice in his language - may just be the coach you are looking for to turn round USA Sailing!

http://thechive.com/2012/08/07/irish-sailing-commentary-turns-boring-into-hilarious-video/

George A said...

Yap, Yap, Yap. The Aussies are upset that they didn't do as well as they thought they should in the swimming events: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/in-olympics-it-pays-to-root-for-team-usa/2012/08/10/b8216770-e305-11e1-ae7f-d2a13e249eb2_story.html

Frankly, the way the USA and a handful of overachiever nations dominate the medal counts is mildly embarrassing. Shouldn't all this focus on athletes competing rather than be just a thin disguise for blinkered Nationalism? Towards the end I found myself rooting for athletes from countries I had to look up in the atlas.

Roger Jones said...

George -
I think a great deal of it has to do with population. In the US I guess we have about 330 million people at the moment. The odds of finding someone exceptional are much greater than in a smaller population base (unless its Canada for Hockey!)

George A said...

Yes, there is that population thing to consider. But there's also an access part of the equation. Some nations dominate because they have larger pocketbooks, better support systems, better training facilities and so on. I was rooting for the Uganda runner in the men's marathon--even over the competitors from that "running powerhouse" Kenya! It's just somehow satisfying to see underdogs win with raw talent rather than because their support system is better.

Back in the days of the Soviet athletic system, we used to complain that their athletes had an unfair advantage in that they were "professionals" supported by the state to train in their particular discipline. The Soviet system produced great athletes but I still feel that the Olympics should be left to individuals. Men's basketball for example should institute an under 23 years of age policy to eliminate (most of, ideally all of) the NBA players. Just my minority opinion!

Anonymous said...

The eligibility rules for Olympic basketball are being reconsidered,I read somewhere...

Wavedancer

Tillerman said...

I never really understood why "tossing a ball through a hoop" is a an Olympic sport but ring tossing isn't.

Baydog said...

Oh baby, now you're talkin' my neck of the woods!

George A said...

Some would say if the winner of an event can't be determined with a tape measure or a stop watch it doesn't belong in the Olympics. The IOC certainly doesn't draw the line that tightly. I think in Rio skateboarding and golf will be introduced. What's next? Mumbly Pegs and Jacks?

Baydog said...

I think I've covered the projected future events for the Olympics in this post, Geo.

Tillerman said...

Trenton Style Quoits is just as much a real sport as Men's Netball.

Tillerman said...

"Old dudes in tartan pants knocking little balls into holes with bent sticks" has as much right to be an Olympic sport as "tall dudes in baggy shorts tossing balls through hoops."

George A said...

Baydog: Moth Boaters will line right up for your corn hole event. We'd be on the podium for sure.

Roger Jones said...

I think the problem with the Olympics is it misses the point. These were competitive games in the time of mano a mano warefare. How about jousting? Melee combat? The Greek Phalanx completion? For sailing we could have piracy, storming a hostile shore with clubs and maces. Can you run fast enough to bring down the wild beast? Or fast enough to escape.

OK, linking my mouth back to my brain. . . . .

OMG...

Tillerman said...

So maybe we should put Brodie Cobb in charge of redesigning the Olympic sailing competition?

Noodle said...

Topsiders, ahhh... Best sailing shoes I ever had.

Post a Comment