Sunday, April 13, 2008

Soft Water Only This Time

Things change when you win the Olympic Trials.

US Finn rep Zach Railey has just wrapped up racing at Lago di Garda ("probably my favorite place in the world") where conditions have not smiled upon the Expert Olympic Garda event. Think light air, rain, and the threat of not making a complete calendar of races. Going in, however, Railey was recalling other regattas at this stupendously scenic mountain lake in the north of Italy. "I'd sail all day and ski all night," he said. "But not this year. Even if I didn't hurt myself on the slopes, Dean Brenner would kill me."

Brenner being the tough-minded volunteer chairman of the US Olympic Sailing Committee who has made it his mission "to maximize US medal chances" in the Games and to get his charges to Qingdao in good order. Brenner has also been voted to a second term as OSC chairman, the first time that US Olympic sailing has had such continuity. Brenner says, "It's unique for us because in the past we've thought in four-year cycles. Instead, we're taking a young team to Qingdao, and we're already doing our diligence on 2012."

Don't underestimate the demands placed upon anyone who occupies this unpaid position. It takes initiative, brainpower, a lot of travel, and a willingness to face a heap of grief. Look for Brenner to be at the center of the storm next month when ISAF at its mid-year meeting in Qingdao reopens the question of "equipment" for the 2012 sailing Games at Weymouth, England. The hullabaloo over dropping the catamaran—that was the vote last November—is heading toward a crescendo, and let's not be simple-minded. Many forces are in play, and there is good reading at Andy Rice's blog on the subtleties of ISAF's invitation to delegates to "reaffirm" decisions already made, and the vote count required for changes, and questions of the longterm best interest of Olympic sailing given that both our international and national sailing authorities depend upon the Olympics for their lifeblood cashflow.

I called Brenner "tough-minded." A man would have to be that to stay in this game. The US vote received a lot of attention at the last ISAF confab, and will again next month. With that thought in mind, let's revisit some conversations from last fall about why the US delegation did not throw its support behind the multihull:

So here we are talking to Dean Brenner on his cell phone, and Brenner is telling us . . .

"There have been suspicions of secret deals. I'll look anybody in the eye and say, no. But we never shied away from saying that men's keelboat was a priority for us, and that's because we believe it affords the US team our best medal chances. You could take a different approach. Some people say you should make decisions, not on medal prospects, but on what's best for the sport, and that sounds good, but if your team doesn't win medals your fund raising is going to dry up and you're not going to be successful in the long run, are you? In the end, we made a sensible, tactical choice on how to vote, and the only legitimate gripe is if you think the US would have a better medal chance in catamarans."

And now we're talking to another volunteer on his cell phone, and that would be US Sailing President Jim Capron, on the subject of the ISAF Annual Meeting in Estoril, Portugal . . .

"The Events Committee put up a slate, but the Council typically does not vote the slate," Capron says. "That was true again in 2007. Once that happens, each event is back on the table. Our proposal for 5-5 gender equity was voted down, and soon it was apparent that five of seven events were a shoe-in, no matter how US Sailing voted. The windsurfer was in, because the rest of the world wants it. That left keelboats and multihulls in question. If we had voted exactly in line with our submission—no to the windsurfer, yes to the rest—it would have been a non-vote because the windsurfer was going to be in. So we had a choice, and the only way we could express that choice was to vote for one and not the other, the keelboat and not the multihull."

Switching back to Dean Brenner . . .

"We believed that if we voted for both the keelboat and the multihull," Brenner says, "we were wasting our vote and leaving the final decision to somebody else. It was a close vote. It could have come to a tie, and that means you've taken a chance. My dream scenario would have multihulls racing and not boards, but somebody was going to be left out, and the boards were definitely in."

It will be no less labyrinthine, and Byzantine, methinks, when next ISAF meets.

Final results for the Garda event, including Vincec Gasper's first and Zach's sixth, can be found HERE.

And, hmm, since Peter Huston has taken the trouble to write a thoughtful comment in response to this blog—find it at bottom; it's worth the read—and since my purpose was not to "parrot" a party line but to hang a few things out there in stark relief—I'm coming back to add this other thought. It too is dragged forward from my response to the ISAF vote in Estoril, and it's a bit closer to my own thoughts, because . . .

There is no other sport where being part of the Olympic Games has so much power to skew the deal. I mean, there's no reason for Lightnings to be part of the Olympics, but if they were, it would radically redefine what it means to race Lightnings. And there was a point ahead of the 2007 ISAF Annual Meeting when keelboats were apparently being squeezed out, and keelboat sailors were complaining in the forums that this large group of sailors was being, that word again, disenfranchised. As of April 2008 we see the mostly-American readers of Scuttlebutt sending a strong signal that they are not happy with the present state of affairs.

And as I try to listen to all sides I only increase the depressing sense that ISAF—no matter how informed and motivated the individuals—is incapable of making any inspired, creative leaps.

And unless my ears deceive me, I hear you, my friends, replying, well . . .