Disability Sports Ambassador

Paralympic Sailing – the show must go on Published under | 1 Comments

In January this year, the IPC announced sailing would be dropped from the 2020 Paralympic Games. It was a shock to the whole sailing community.   I’ve been giving some thought to how we find ourselves in this situation.

With regards the recent IPC decision, I believe disabled sailing is disadvantaged compared to other sports simply because it is so egalitarian and non discriminatory.  We have become victims of our own success. Sailing welcomes anyone and everyone, regardless of ability, at every level. That is what makes it so special.  Most sailors I know would rather not be pigeon-holed into disabled sailing at all, we just enjoy sailing with, and against, anyone. IPC eligibility criteria for Paralympic entry actually favour more discriminatory sports – without mentioning specific sports, many will use only 1 piece of equipment (from grass roots to elite level) or be for a particular disability.  Whilst we see only a boat as our piece of equipment, we are disadvantaged as we need to specify which class of boat. So only the 3 Paralympic classes are counted by IPC, not the many other classes also sailed and raced by disabled sailors on a regular basis. But isn’t sailing just sailing? The 2.4 is a great example of a class that can be sailed by disabled and non-disabled.  Can you imagine if it were chosen as an Olympic class? That would raise some eyebrows. And as for disability, our functionality tests allow a wide range of disabilities to sail, disabilities that might otherwise be excluded from other Paralympic sports.  It seems so unfair that our ability to sail many types of boats and to cater for so many disabilities, something most people would see as a positive, are factors which actually count against us in the eyes of IPC.

My other thoughts have been about money, and the effect it has had on the situation we find ourselves.  The UK receives funding from government sporting bodies – that money is dependent on the British sailing team achieving their targets. This is no secret. All Olympic and Paralympic sports in the UK have these targets. The same will be true for many other nations, certainly the richer nations.  Make no mistake, you deliver on targets, you get funding, you fail and that funding can be cut. Although no nation is likely to admit it publicly, if your funding is dependent on your team winning medals, you would rather be racing against a fewer number of competitors, that way you are more likely to win medals. MNA’S have no motivation whatsoever so see the number of nations increase, to them it only increases competition and lessens the likelihood of medals which will result in loss of funding.  Using expensive classes of boat which preclude poorer nations from competing is not helping matters and is possibly a contributing factor to the position we find ourselves in now having been excluded from the 2020 Games.

Some years ago I wrote a paper for IFDS called “Lowest Common Denominator”.  In it I made the case for one of the Paralympic classes of boat to be suitable for the most severely disabled persons to sail so they had a choice; they could use technology and adaptations to sail one of the more technical classes or they could sail the more simplified boat.  Likewise, more able-bodied sailors could choose either but, if they chose to sail the less technical boat, they would at least be on a par with others.  Many were dismissive, citing that sailing is a technical sport and disagreeing with dumbing-down.  I’m afraid I disagree.  Those who want technical sailing can have it, but if our sport is to survive, we need to show just how inclusive it it can be at the Paralympic levels. Why shouldn’t those sailors who do so using only sip and puff have a platform at the Paralympics? Sailing has a PR problem, it is often regarded (incorrectly) as elitist, even disabled sailing but I wonder if, by excluding our most severely disabled sailors from that world stage, we ourselves are not guilty in creating that elitism. The HANSA Liberty was not designed when I wrote that paper but it is exactly the kind of boat I had in mind.

The past few weeks have made me realise how much I love sailing but also how we need to look again at the future. It is more than a sport, it provides something very personal to everyone who is fortunate to do it.

1 Comment has been made

Michael mcLean says:

Geoff, we met many years ago in Sydney. It’s interesting that ISAF/IPC have now dropped the “disabled” from the IFD S WORLDS and is now calling it the Para World Sailing Championships.
I am chair of the organising committee for this year’s 2015 Worlds here in Melbourne. I hope normal service can be restored.

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