Olympic sailors battle over boat classes for 2016 Games

Iain Percy and Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson are back in battle mode, not just against Olympic rivals but their sport’s world governing body, the International Sailing Federation.

On the south coast, after being two of the four athletes to unveil the Olympic countdown clock in London, they were contemplating 500 days of bump and grind and sending a message to ISAF headquarters just a few miles away.

For themselves they want a second consecutive Olympic gold medal - a third for Percy - but they will take a couple of those 500 to go to St. Petersburg in May, where ISAF will select the classes of boat to compete at the Games in 2016.

Right now, their two-man keelboat, the Star, is facing the chop. Much politicking is going on behind the scenes, and ISAF has faced a barrage of criticism for dropping the twin-hulled catamaran from the 2012 line-up.

But Percy insists that it is not because of any ambitions he has for 2016, rather he feels that the Star represents keelboat monohull sailing which still dominates the average, non-dinghy aspect of the sport and it is understood and enjoyed up and down the country. And the Star class attracts winners from other classes.

This is not, he says, a boat in which to be trying for your first medal. The blazers in ISAF will be left in no doubt as to how they should vote. “I make no apology for saying that this is the class where the champions race against the champions,” says Percy.

Listen: Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson talk to Stuart Alexander...

Part of the problem is the cost of financing a Star campaign, which is why the addition of sponsorship from Clarks Shoes plays such an important role, in addition to Skandia  and national lottery support, in meeting bills of up to £100,000 a year. Clarks will also develop a special sailing boot, though it may not make it to the High Street.

But Percy insists that much of that expense is swallowed up in travel – “we don’t aspire to make money out of Olympic sailing” – and the withdrawal of Sir Keith Mills from the America’s Cup fray at least allowed them to concentrate on the Olympics “and that’s something we’re very passionate about.”

But Percy insists there are a lot of pressures that come with being at home. Playing away, for instance in China, allowed them to shut out the rest of the world, turn off the mobiles and create a bubble of concentration to train in. “This time it’s not going to be so easy and I think a lot of the British athletes have realised that.”

And ISAF? The message is clear: “It will be bad for the sport of sailing if the elimination of the Star is confirmed.” Simpson is equally adamant. “You would have to worry about the sport retaining its place in the Olympics if that is the direction in which they are going.”  

America’s Cup entries would normally be accompanied with fanfares, but the long-expected confirmation that Emirates Team New Zealand will again take part is being kept very low key. Such expenditure – is there NZ government backing? - was difficult enough coming at a time when Christchurch and the country tries to recover from the family and economic consequences of the earthquake.

The catastrophe in Japan, with Toyota a long-time supporter, has made matters worse. But, with just two weeks to go to the entry deadline of 31 March – unless this is due to be extended – there is little choice.

The organisers of the next Cup in 2013 hope that, in addition to the Swedish entry Artemis, whom Percy will join for the tune-up programme, at least four other challengers will have put their finances together, including the Italian challenger of record, Vincenzo Onorato’s Mascalzone Latino, by the end of the month.

They also hope to announce, two months late, the venues of the America’s Cup World Series 2011-12, to be raced in the AC45 wing-powered catamarans.