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ISAF World Sailing Conference To Highlight Sport's Archaic Governance

23rd October 2014

#isafconference – The annual bunfight that is the conference of the world governing body for sailing, the International Sailing Federation(ISAF) gets under way at the start of next month in Palma, Majorca.
Over 400 blazers (including a 13–strong delegation from the Irish Sailing Association) will gather to discuss the burning and not so burning issues of the day, with a system developed in Ireland looking set to be the hottest topic on the agenda. Back in the days when Cork Week grew to be the most popular (if not the most populous) major keelboat regatta of its type in the world, it became clear that there was a demand to distinguish between those who sailed for fun and those who did so for a living. At the heart of the issue were the shouts of "unfair" from the largely amateur crews who saw a creeping influence of contracted-in sailors with a background in sailmaking, high performance events and marine industry related professions. Responding to this unrest, the Royal Cork Yacht Club, led by Donal McClement, developed a system for excluding such "pros" from certain classes of racing. The result was the increasing adoption of the system by race organisers until ISAF decided to call it the "Classification Code" and enshrine it in their regulations where it has been ever since, updated to reflect trends in yacht racing. While it is not perfect, it does have widespread acceptance, so it was quite a shock to ISAF members to discover that submission 025-14 proposes to remove it altogether as an ISAF regulation. It is believed that this is being championed by ISAF President Carlo Croce, under pressure from elements within Italian sailing, where the use of the code is less popular.
ISAF, formerly the International Yacht Racing Union, has a governing process more akin to an old style Soviet politburo than to modern democracy. An executive committee implements the policy decisions of a 40 member Council, which are subject to review at the Annual General Meeting, where the voting body is the member national authorities (MNAs) of each ISAF country. It was this little know wrinkle in the ISAF constitution that allowed the MNAs to overturn Council's decision to include kitesurfing in the 2016 Olympics the 2012 AGM in Dun Laoghaire. Confused? Well you should be, because simple it ain't.
ISAF has layers of governance, but the key policy making body is the ISAF Council, which is made up of representatives from groups of MNAs determined mostly by geography, with a bit of political expediency thrown in. Ireland, for example, in the pre-apartheid era, was in Group A with the UK and South Africa. Now Group A is just UK and Ireland, with South Africa moved to Group Q representing Africa. Group A, with a population of 68 million gets two seats on Council, while Africa, with a population of close to a billion, gets I seat. And therein lies the core of the problem. ISAF is still very much a white, first world, wealthy organisation, with little outreach to the developing world. The Council system perpetuates this by excluding many smaller countries from active participation in policy making. For example, how likely is it that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan will ever get to sit on Council when they are in Group H with Russia and there is only one seat for their group? Or Paraguay, in group N with Brazil, where there is one seat for two countries. Group E combines the Iberian countries, but if Portugal has an outside chance of sitting on Council then Andorra has none. Furthermore, where is the sense in linking Italy and France with Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey? How do they decide who gets the two Council seats there?
The very populous area of South and Central Asia with developing sailing activity gets only one seat, forcing India, Singapore, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others to work out who gets to go.
The kite-surfing debacle shows how the smaller countries have fought back against un-mandated Council decisions. In May 2012, at the ISAF mid-year meeting in St Petersburg, the ISAF Council, somewhat inspired by a passionate appeal from Ireland's John Crebbin, voted to introduce kitesurfing into the 2016 Olympics at the expense of windsurfing. He was supported by Gerardo Seeliger representing the Iberian Group. However, at the General Meeting of MNAs in Dun Laoghaire later that year, the individual members voted, under the review clause, to overturn the Council decision. Incidentally, the numbers of MNAs in attendance was considerably swollen by the desire of ISAF Presidential Candidates to get delegates favourable to their cause to the ballot box for the quadrennial Presidential and Executive Committee elections.
Pouring oil on the flames is the fact that once appointed there is no procedure for removing a Council member until the beginning of the next quad. As seen in the kitesurfing debate, where Seeliger, voted in favour of kitesurfing, alledgedly contrary to the wishes of his nominating countries, many Council members not only believe in their independence from national and regional issues, but pride themselves on making decision in the "best interests of the sport." Seeliger's stance on kitesurfing created an uproar in Spanish sailing circles and forced an embarrassing apology from the Spanish Federation to its sailors. Not surprisingly, a submission from Portugal and Spain proposes to amend the regulation to allow for removal of a Council member during term.
That there is unrest amongst the under-represented nations is clear from the source and number of submissions proposing changes to the governance structure. One of these comes from the Executive Committee itself, proposing that a Continental structure be established where each Continental Association would act as the "agent of ISAF in the management and delivery of programs" and be charged with promoting "brand awareness and brand image of ISAF and sailing within each continent." This proposal, which supports the principal of continentalisation, does not propose real change for 12 months, suggesting that Continental Associations first put their own house in order.
There are three submissions supported by a group of 15 MNAs, suggesting that ISAF go further, sooner, in devolving some form of autonomy to the Continental Associations, while two others, from the Cook Islands, Papua NE Guinea and Singapore have the temerity to suggest that ISAF use some of its Olympic revenue to support administration at a more local level.
That there is no call for change from the represented MNAs is not surprising. A seat on Council is highly valued, and, in any case, change would reduce the considerable European influence. Currently, Europe holds 47% of the seats on Council (excluding representative members), while Asia has 17%, North America and the Caribbean 14%, while all of Africa has only one seat (under 3%)
Supporters of the system will argue that representation on Council mirrors the sailing activity around the world. That may be so, but why should we here in Ireland have the same presence as all of Africa? And in a good democracy, shouldn't minority interests have at least the right to be heard?
And the money maybe a thorn in the side for many smaller MNAs as they don't see a huge commitment from ISAF to the development of sailing regionally. There appears to be greater appetite at the Executive Committee for high performance activity than for true development of the sport worldwide. ISAFs championing of the World Cup final in Abu Dhabi is not widely supported by the MNAs, who consider this an unwelcome diversion for sailors on the Olympic trail. Sailors too are split, with support from classes who can easily avail of the supplied boats – Laser, Laser Radial and RS:X – but not from those whose equipment is more sophisticated – Finn, 470, 49er and 49er Fx. ISAF has had to go further down the rankings then intended to fill the limited spots available, negating the claim that the worlds 20 best sailors in each class will be participating.

So where now for ISAF?

Continentalisation may work well for Europe and parts of Asia, where communications and geography are not the barriers they are elsewhere in the world. It can cause local problems – the Americas is a case in point, where Venezuela, geographically part of South America, sails in the Caribbean and would prefer to be grouped with those nations it interacts with regularly.
Some believe that the only way forward is to do away with Council altogether and establish a one country, one seat form of governance that gives everyone a say. However, it is thought that this change is unlikely to come from within, but will require a revolution of sorts, if not through the submission proves then by the elective method. While Council may control policy, it is the MNAs that elect the President and the Executive and growing unrest might well see a reform platform winning the day next time round in 2016. The windsurfing/kitesurfing overturn in Dun Laoghaire in 2012 may have been a landmark decision in more ways than one.

Published in Water Rat
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