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Irish Olympic Sailing: Time for a Different Tack

2nd September 2021
Tipperary's Aisling Keller on her way to securing Ireland's place at the Tokyo Olympics in the Laser Radial class at the 2019 World Championships in Japan. The subsequent handling of the 2020 selection process for Radial nomination to the Olympic Federation of Ireland should be the subject of an independent review, according to former Irish Sailing President Roger Bannon.
Tipperary's Aisling Keller on her way to securing Ireland's place at the Tokyo Olympics in the Laser Radial class at the 2019 World Championships in Japan. The subsequent handling of the 2020 selection process for Radial nomination to the Olympic Federation of Ireland should be the subject of an independent review, according to former Irish Sailing President Roger Bannon

Irish Olympic performances have again failed to meet expectations, writes Roger Bannon, so perhaps the High-Performance support structure needs to be changed.

In the wake of the Tokyo Olympics, it seems very timely for some dispassionate reflection on Ireland's sailing performance. This time, we had three representatives in 2 disciplines, including our 2016 Silver Medallist in Rio, Annalise Murphy and the very talented pairing of Dickson and Waddilove, in the 49er.

Despite winning two races in her preferred windy conditions, Annalise failed to perform to her usual high standards and finished well outside the qualification criteria for the final medal race. The 49er team had an outstanding regatta which included two race wins in this incredibly competitive fleet, finally finishing just outside the medal race qualification after being forced to discard two excellent race results because of a technical weight infringement on a trapeze harness, an extraordinary oversight.

This overall disappointing performance was also marred by controversy about the fairness of the altered selection criteria for the Laser Radial slot and the withdrawal of the long-term coaching support for the 49er team after they won the U23 World Championships in 2020. Our justified Rio performer, Finn Lynch, failed to qualify for the Men's Laser and the 49er FX talent Saskia Tidey, former Irish representative in the 49er FX class in Rio, transferred her allegiance to the British sailing team.

By any objective analysis, these outcomes are incredibly disappointing.

The current High-Performance Unit is basically comprised of the same senior personnel since 2006. This backroom team has presided over Irish participation at 4 Olympics since 2008. Apart from Annalise Murphy's silver medal in Rio, an exceptional result for a variety of reasons, Irish results at all these Olympics have failed to fulfil our much-heralded promise. Annalise's four race wins without a medal in London 2012 and the failure of the very fancied Star Boat team at the same event illustrate our disappointments very clearly.

There is a growing clamour for a review of Irish Sailing's High-Performance division. Annalise's silver medal in 2016 was a reflection of her dedication, her unique physique and undoubted exceptional talent in windy conditions. Her performance in Rio was also enhanced by her decision to independently retain the services of a specialist New Zealand coach, which was financially supported by a sponsor procured with the assistance of fellow members of the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire. A widely held perception in Ireland is that Annalise's achievements have masked serious shortcomings elsewhere in our Olympic Sailing stable.

It is estimated that at least €15m has been spent since 2006 on High-Performance Sailing in Ireland, excluding what the participants themselves have contributed.

The Government regularly spends more supporting Irish sailing than any Olympic sport other than Athletics, a windfall which is unlikely to continue after our poor results in Tokyo and consistent disappointments in the past.

Ireland is not unique in being disappointed with its performance in Tokyo. The USA failed to win any medals, despite being a major sailing country. They have recognised that big changes have to be made, and they have appointed Paul Cayard, a world-class Olympic and International sailor, to become their high-performance supremo. Cayard had this to say on his appointment: "Many of us in America are dissatisfied by our Olympic sailing trend and want to correct our course. While being in the middle of the pack is not a bad thing, it is just not how Americans think of themselves. Moving up the Olympic pecking order is not going to be easy. 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."

In a recent interview, Keith Musto, Silver medallist at the 1964 games in Tokyo in the Flying Dutchman class, offered his analysis as to why the UK is so dominant in the Olympics.

He asserted that without a good national base of active dinghy racing with an integrated training and coaching structure, it is difficult to consistently produce high quality talent. The RYA recently appointed the renowned Olympic and international sailor Ian Walker as their high-performance supremo to direct what they hope will be the ongoing British dominance in Olympic sailing, demonstrating their willingness to review and change even an outstandingly successful high-performance structure which has delivered so many medals over the last 12 years.

Where does that leave Irish Sailing?

I presume the mission statement for the HP is to deliver medals at the Olympics (without using any of the financial resources of Irish Sailing) by basically relying on direct Government funding and private fund-raising efforts.

We need to re-examine how these precious financial resources are deployed. The Financial Statements of Irish Sailing illustrate that most of the discretionary funding is spent on infrastructural costs such as salaries, capital equipment and overheads, with a relatively small percentage being used to directly support athletes, unless independently allocated under the carding system by the Sports Council.

To be fair, Irish Sailing has regularly nurtured a coterie of very talented youth sailors who have performed outstandingly at the international level, but it is also clear we have a problem with subsequently developing this talent at the senior level and providing the support these athletes need when attending major events. We have basically not changed our approach for the last four or five Olympic cycles, and the core methodology is obviously not working and needs to be totally reappraised, probably with new blood and revised structures.

Informed commentary from former and aspiring Olympians and younger talent suggest the following issues need to be addressed;

  • We need to professionalise our coaching support techniques to improve performance at each Olympics. This may require investment in senior appointments from outside the narrow base of coaches in Ireland. Listening to Billy Walsh, the former Irish Boxing Coach now managing the Olympic Boxing team for the USA, outline how to do this in a comprehensive interview recently on Newstalk revealed a level of attention to detail which was astonishing.
  • We should regularly peer-review ourselves against other more successful nations of similar size, such as New Zealand.
  • High-performance sailors should not be isolated from mainstream domestic sailing activities.
  • Our HP sailors must win the hearts and minds of all sailors in Ireland, which will encourage an esprit de corps which will attract proper fundraising and goodwill from the general sailing public.
  • Enhanced PR, controlled accessibility to athletes, improved relations with young athletes' families together with independent accountability for major decisions would represent badly-needed improvements to the current set-up. Importantly, the existing aura of secrecy must change.
  • There is an urgent need for the HP area to develop protocols to assist in improving communication and consultation with families that support young athletes attempting to gain traction at the international level. A review of all legal documentation required to be signed by all participants in HP activities is also urgently needed as many believe some of the undertakings are unreasonable and unfairly onerous.
  • It is undoubtedly time for major changes to the composition of the High-Performance Olympic Committee. Too many members have been around for far too long during a period when little success was achieved.

Repeating the same decisions will not change the outcome. We have less than 3 years to go to Paris so changes need to be taken promptly. Using the argument that making changes will be disruptive does not make sense, Disruption is what we need and, in the meantime, we must nurture the raw talent we have - in the 49er Team, the Laser Radial and the Men's Laser - and find ways to disseminate the technical know-how and expertise acquired by our HP sailors as we attempt to raise standards on a more widespread basis.

Sport Ireland has to be looking at Irish Sailing with a seriously jaundiced perspective. They will likely also have identified the need for a different approach and will expect the hierarchy in Irish Sailing to be sufficiently aware of the urgent need for serious changes. Constant failure to deliver on promises whilst recklessly talking up the future, eventually has its day.

It's time for some imaginative and material changes. This is probably best achieved by an independent review of the High-Performance area, the conclusions of which are ultimately published to encourage debate within the Irish Sailing community on how best to proceed in the future with our Olympic aspirations.

Roger Bannon is a former President and Treasurer of the Irish Sailing Association

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