Sailing: Americans under fire as class struggle intensifies

As the World Championships reach their climax, the rift between Europe and America over how the sport should be run is growing
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The Independent Online

As they did 198 years ago, things are going well for the British in Cadiz. But while their sailors are these days entirely focused on winning medals, the sound of some significant broadsides can still be heard.

They are being fired on the diehards and leatherbacks who want to time-warp the sport in the gentle era of Corinthian privilege and anachronistic autonomy. For autonomy, read anarchy.

That the World Championships of Olympic Sailing are taking place at all is a minor miracle and the sport's world governing body, the International Sailing Federation, first had to overcome rearguard resistance from the very people who are taking part.

As the event reaches a climax, those detractors are looking pretty foolish. When the defending world champion in the Star keelboat class, Britain's Iain Percy, took the trouble to tell the organising ISAF president, Paul Henderson, that "this is the greatest sailing event I have ever been to", he was voicing the feeling of most competitors.

To have all 11 Olympic disciplines racing at the same event for their world championships may not seem unusual. After all, track and field athletes share the same events and no one would think of staging a separate hammer, discus or long jump world championship.

But Percy's view is his own. The official voices of the competitors are their class associations - "my biggest fight is with the classes," Henderson says - and in the Star class the Italian president, Riccardo Simoneschi, has embarrassingly been forced to bow to a mean-spirited United States faction which has insisted that the award of a gold star, which can be carried for life on the mainsail, shall not be made to the 2003 world champion. If you don't do it by our rules, they say, then you can't play.

As defending world champion, Percy already has his, but this is just one of many indications that there is now a serious rift in the way sailing is developing as a sport between Europe and the United States.

"If you choose to be an Olympic class of yacht, you have to play by Olympic-type rules," Henderson says clearly.

To cause further apoplectic choking in US throats, he also says that the world governing body should take over the central administration of the Olympic classes.

Such heresy will not become divine scripture during his presidency, which comes to an end after a record 10 years in November 2004. But the whole idea of gathering all the classes together for a world championship, instead of each holding them in different places at different times, appeals to strongly structured organisations like the Royal Yachting Association and to individuals like Percy.

He would go further and have a combined biennial world championships, and says only six top-class venues would be needed worldwide as they would rotate every 12 years.

The RYA racing division delivered three gold and two silver medals at the Sydney Games. It is the recipient of significant lottery funding and has a share in a £7.5m new national sailing centre being built in Portland Harbour, near Weymouth.

Despite claims to the contrary, its funding is not greater than its major European rivals. All the countries in Europe, whether through government taxes or lotteries, back major sailing programmes. But governments and lotteries have performance criteria, whereas classes have a less stringent qualification process.

Although the US Olympic Committee is awash with cash, it does not make sailing a spending priority, though some universities have major programmes with full-time coaches.

But Britain's Olympic manager, Stephen Park, says it is not all to do with money. "It is a huge satisfaction that the British system is delivering British wins. It is what our lives are about: we eat, breathe and sleep it," he says.

"People, and that includes the sailors, work hard. They are prepared to go the extra mile. The physios are working until 10.30 at night; the coaches have their pre-breakfast meeting at seven in the morning. Talent is not enough. At the end of the day, the hard work is required."

Henderson has already received a bid for a similar gathering in 2007 from Aarhaus in Denmark and the Cadiz region would like to run it again.

"I believe the only true élite international sailing that will be done in the future will be in the Olympic classes," he says.

"This has been an eye-opener for the sailors. It is what top sailing is all about. I am getting e-mails from all over the world and one of the threads is 'thanks for thinking big'."

The Star class has been shaken from top to bottom by the sort of strength and fitness which Percy and his crew, Steve Mitchell, have added to technique and talent. They have added athleticism to the cerebral.

Percy calls it "being a bit more dynamic", and says to those who are not keeping up: "The solution is simple and does not cost a lot - just get yourself down to the gym."

Cadiz has shown the way forward. Those who cannot see will lose their way.