Letter of the Month: Who's to Blame?

The lack of yachting medals in the recent Olympics will undoubtedly spawn many letters and articles. David Schmidt's column "What Went Wrong" in the October 2012 issue of SAIL is not the first and will not be the last.
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Below is an unedited letter written on November 1, 2012 by reader Rod Glover responding to an article from the October 2012 issue. We published this letter in part in "Feedback" (January, 2013). Rod Glover is the former chair to the original one-design class council for Nayru; former chair and vice president of Class Racing Committee. Share your comments below.

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The lack of yachting medals in the recent Olympics will undoubtedly spawn many letters and articles. David Schmidt's column "What Went Wrong" in the October 2012 issue of SAIL is not the first and will not be the last. It may be the most disturbing, however, and he seems to be letting the tail wag the dog. US Sailing does not exist to win Olympic medals, it exists to promote sailing and to serve the best interests of all US sailors. The Olympics is just one of the opportunities to compete that it provides. He writes of "distractive" college sailing, but college sailing is an end unto itself; it is there for the kids, not as a training program for the Olympics. He writes of "lackluster" feeder programs, but US Sailing's job is to provide opportunities to sail, not to recruit young sailors into a program that in some cases may not be in their best interests. He writes of "exclusive" yacht clubs, but many of the top sailors come from small clubs or sailing associations that are anything but exclusive.

In 1977 I chaired a task force to reorganize the US Olympic Yachting Committee. For years the OYC had been a small committee of dedicated men that had produced a splendid record. Sailing was the third largest producer of U.S. Olympic medals behind track and field, and diving and swimming. However, it was an "old boys" committee, and after the '76 trials and games, it was felt a more businesslike committee was needed. The task force consisted of former Olympic and Pan Am medal winners, and to represent younger sailors, one young coach with a rising reputation, Gary Jobson. A detailed organization chart was developed, and a council of athletes was added to allow the OYC as much independence as possible. I am sure the organization chart has seen many changes, but the basic principles have not. There were also two charges to the committee. First, that it operate in accordance with American values. This largely concerned the belief that competitors should be selected by winning in competition, not, as in some other countries, by being selected as much as a year in advance by a committee of bureaucrats. Second, and most important, while medals were the goal, all Olympic committee decisions must always put the best interests of American sailing first.

As an example, when the Tempest Class opted out of the Olympics, and a replacement class was needed, US Sailing put the interests of one design class members first. All classes were invited to ask for consideration as the replacement, but were required to provide a survey that showed the class members supported that decision. At the time, many US sailors felt that selection for the Olympics was detrimental to their class's best interest. The only class able to get members' support was the Star, an Olympic icon. US Sailing supported it, and it was selected for the 1980 games.

In addition to being detrimental to the classes, many felt that for some sailors, becoming involved in an Olympic campaign might not be in their best interests. At the US Sailing midyear meetings in 1980, Ding Schoonmaker convinced a number of board members that US Sailing should withdraw the US from Olympic yachting competition. I agreed with all of Ding's arguments, but concluded that it should not be our role to deny US sailors opportunities to compete. A majority of the board agreed, and we stayed in. The important point here was that US Sailing would, "provide an opportunity," not that Olympic medals would be our primary goal. I believe it would be a major error on US Sailing's part to attempt to recruit young sailors into an Olympic campaign. It is a formidable challenge, and should come from a fire in the belly, not a push from US Sailing, or from anyone else.

I have not been involved in US Sailing for some time, but age does give the advantage of perspective. There is an interesting anomaly in our Olympic record, that may offer some clues to our diminishing medal count. The young sailors who were sailing during high school or college in roughly a ten year period from about the early '70s to the early '80s were arguably the greatest group of young sailors we have ever produced. The first of these young sailors appeared in the 1976 Olympics, and by 1980 had taken over the Olympic program. They also took over many of the OD classes, and many became "rock stars." Up to that time, more experienced middle aged sailors had tended to dominate. 

In 1980 the OYC predicted a medal in every class with most of them gold, largely from this group. Unfortunately an America president decided to politicize the Olympics, and our young sailors saw years of hard work go down the drain. Many of these young sailors, bitterly disappointed, dropped out of Olympic sailing, but those who remained did us proud in '84. And, rather incredibly, they went on to win almost every medal won by the US before 2008. This was not without exception; the elder Buchan won a medal in Stars the year his son won in Dutchman. Most of the medal winners, over a period of seven Olympiads, were born in a short period from '62 to '68. By 2000 these "kids" were getting long in the tooth, but the streak went on, and in 2004 they won their last medal.

These sailors were from an earlier generation when Olympic sailing was poorly funded and relatively low key, but were still winning medals while the new "kids on the block" from the "modern" era were not. In 2008, a new generation finally took over with fine performances by Anna Tunniclife and Zach Railey. Why this long hiatus. A good question that deserves careful study. I do have some theories why those earlier "kids" did so well compared to those who followed, but this is a complicated subject, and they are no more than theories. It does appear that today we do have more young sailors in club training programs than in the '70s, and some are as good as the earlier generation, but it also appears that we do not have as many deeply committed young sailors, and thus not the depth of competition. The value of close competition was evident in '08 when Railey and Tunnicliffe pushed each other to ever higher levels. It is quite possible that Dean Brenner did the best that could be done in 2012 with the cards he was dealt.

It might be better to go back to fundamentals and study the state of sailing in the U.S. today, rather than worrying about how we can change US Sailing to better support our Olympic team. I do not believe we will find the answer by redesigning collegiate sailing to benefit the Olympics, nor to actively recruit young sailors to compete in an event that may leave some bitter and disappointed, nor to bring them up in types of boats that are not actively raced by their elders. I am not sure of US Sailing's position on recent class selections, but I do not believe that the best interests of sailing were served by ISAF taking the catamaran out in 2012, taking the Star out in 2016 or by adding kite sailing in 2016. As best I can tell, sailing is the only Olympic sport that competes with equipment not used elsewhere in the sport. I do believe US Sailing should base all of its decisions on what is best for US sailing as a whole. If we do that, with the type of dedicated people who have managed our Olympic sailing program, Olympic sailing will take care of itself.

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