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Olympic Sailing: Where to Now?

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470 sailors Stu McNay (left) and David Hughes were among those U.S. sailors who made it to a medal race at the Enoshima Olympic regatta

470 sailors Stu McNay (left) and David Hughes were among those U.S. sailors who made it to a medal race at the Enoshima Olympic regatta

It’s official, not only is the United States no longer an Olympic power when it comes to sailing, it’s fast beginnings look like an also-ran—albeit an also-ran with loads of potential.

What other conclusion is there to draw from the fact that for the second time in three Olympiads, the U.S. Sailing Team failed to win a single medal at the 2021 (technically “2020”) Olympic regatta in Enoshima, Japan? Truth be told, it was never even close. Toward the end of the regatta, a U.S. crew just making it into a final medal race was news. For the record, this took place in just three of 10 events, with Pedro Pascual making it to the medal round in the RS:X men’s sailboard event; Riley Gibbs and Anna Weis doing so in the Nacra 17; and Stu McNay and David Hughes competing in the medal race in the men’s 470 class. That’s it.

Top of the heap in Enoshima was the British Team, with golds in the Finn, women’s 470 and 49er classes, and five medals overall out of a possible 30. Beyond, that the medals were scattered among teams from across Europe and the world. Australia scored a pair of golds in the Laser and men’s 470 classes; the Dutch earned three medals, including gold in the men’s RS:X class; China scored two medals; and Croatia, Hungary and Poland also all medaled. The only other country possibly coming away as disappointed as the United States would have to be New Zealand, which after winning four medals at the 2016 Games only earned a single medal this time around—a silver that went to 49er phenoms Blair Tuke and Peter Burling of America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race fame.

So, what went wrong? In the short term, you could argue the U.S. team found itself especially isolated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In SAIL’s coverage leading up to the regatta, McNay said as much in his conversation with writer Chris Museler. U.S. sailors remained trapped within their nationals borders at the same time many European sailors, especially, were able to continue training with one another and even do some racing.

Obviously, though, there’s more to it than that. It’s no surprise the Brits, who have now surpassed the United States in the overall Olympic medal count 64 to 61, continue to do so well. Their sailing team is consistently well-funded, thanks to the money it receives from Britain’s national lottery: a situation that doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon, with UK Sport, the governing body tasked with allocating Olympic resources, agreeing this past winter to dedicate $29 million to the country’s sailing program between 2021 and 2025 (making it the fourth highest-funded Olympic sport in the UK behind cycling, track and field, and rowing).

Same thing with many of the other leading national teams out there. They, too, tend to be much better funded than their U.S. counterparts, which over time leads to a kind of “culture” of winning, with the veterans, in particular, having plenty of time and resources to both compete and help out the newbies.

So, what is to be done? That’s the question facing U.S. Olympic Sailing Executive Director, Paul Cayard, a former Olympian and Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, who took over the reins this past March following the departure of his predecessor, Australian two-time 470 gold medalist, Malcolm Page.

The good news is that while Cayard will undoubtedly have to continue to do his best to bolster the bottom line, he says he believes the team is already well-positioned for success. As evidence, he cites the many young sailors currently coming up through the Olympic Development Program initiated around the time of the 2016 Olympic regatta in Rio.

U.S. Olympic Sailing Executive Director, Paul Cayard

U.S. Olympic Sailing Executive Director, Paul Cayard

“In the USA, we [already] possess excellence in key sectors that contribute to winning in sports,” Cayard said in an open letter published shortly after the close of the Enoshima Olympics. “These include technology, organization, elite athleticism, coaching and financial resources. We don’t have to reinvent anything. We simply need to design a system and process to bring that excellence to bear on the field of play. A machine that will be sustainable for years to come.”

In other good news, Cayard says no fewer than seven of the sailors who competed at Enoshima have already committed to remaining with the team through the Paris Olympics, set to take place in 2024. Same thing with a number of other standout team members who did especially well during the trials leading up to Enoshima. It is of such things—continuity and long-term commitment—that team cultures are made.

“Moving up the Olympic pecking order is not going to be easy,” Cayard says. “No one is going to get out of our way. We need to build a machine that puts teams and athletes in a position where their usual routine will produce a podium result on a regular basis. This is about cultivation, education, preparation and execution on game day. This is about proper process and procedure.”

Music to an Olympic sailor’s ears, not to mention the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team’s many fans. Fingers crossed things come together as planned, and that Cayard and company receive the financial support they need to ensure those plans bear fruit. Alas, time is already short. Because the most recent Olympic regatta came a year late, there’s just three years to go until the next one. And you can be sure the other teams out there are already hard at it as well. 

October 2021

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