Waterskiing: Farewell to the champion of a spurned sport

Wave of emotion: Mapple retires on top of the world but without the Olympic medal he craves

Had waterskiing been an Olympic sport, Andy Mapple surely would have returned from Athens as Britain's leading medallion man. Such has been his world supremacy over the past two decades that at least half-a-dozen successive Olympic titles might have been added to the six world championships he has acquired alongside his 10 current world records and too many Masters titles to mention.

Had waterskiing been an Olympic sport, Andy Mapple surely would have returned from Athens as Britain's leading medallion man. Such has been his world supremacy over the past two decades that at least half-a-dozen successive Olympic titles might have been added to the six world championships he has acquired alongside his 10 current world records and too many Masters titles to mention.

Alas, while his achievements may have been Olympian, Mapple will never be one himself. Yesterday the 41-year-old returned for a valedictory performance at Thorpe Park in Surrey, where it all began for him 23 years ago when he won his first world slalom title.

Several hundred of the faithful gathered on a grassy knoll to say goodbye to a true icon of British sport, but one who has never been celebrated like contemporaries in more publicised pastimes. Mapple retired on the crest of a wave, in the UK leg of the Sunsail World Cup, the biggest waterski event of the year, his only regret being that he was never able to compete for an Olympic medal. But now he takes up a battle he hopes will result in others being able to do so, especially if the Games wash up in London in 2012.

Mapple, Preston-born but Florida-based since 1984, is to become the chief executive of World Waterski Pros, a sort of ATP of the sport, and a priority will be raising the profile of waterskiing and achieving overdue Olympic recognition within the next eight years.

"I watched the Games and I wished I could have competed in them," he says. "It has always been my ultimate dream, but one I have never achieved.

"Really, it is disgusting we are not in the Olympics. We are recognised as an Olympic sport, we even receive funding from the IOC, but we can't get into the Games. It's political bullshit.

"We are accused of being élitist, but you could say the same of several Olympic sports. We're probably less so than some, like sailing and rowing. There were more than 60 nations at our last world championships, and when I look at some of the sports which are included it makes me very angry."

He didn't specify, but you get the drift. Some of us scratch our heads at a Games blessed with beach volleyball and now women's wrestling. Fortunately, the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, something of an old salt himself when it comes to water sports - he was an Olympic yachtsman - may be sympathetic. He says the reason no additional sports were included in Athens (where the Greeks themselves wanted waterskiing in their programme) was because of the numerical cap on athletes.

This will not alter for Beijing, but whoever gets the 2012 Games may have to cater for a few new activities. Sports such as baseball, modern pentathlon and now drugs-riddled weightlifting are in jeopardy, while the call is growing to give tennis the elbow. Some IOC members believe there is no room for sports which do not have the Games as their ultimate prize, and tennis, with its numerous Grand Slams and big names who can't really give a service toss, is among them. Waterskiing has a decent case and a growing lobby, and certainly would be good for Britain, as it happens to be a sport in which the nation has had sustained success, thanks to Mapple and Co. In fact it is arguably the nation's most consistently successful sport at world level.

Obtaining Olympic status is something which Mapple and his new union are tackling seriously. "We have to be there. It is the greatest two weeks in international sport. We are in the World Games and the Pan-American Games, but not the Olympic Games. Crazy. Never mind me. Some of the best athletes in the world are waterskiers, and it is wrong to deny them their moment of glory."

Seventeen of them, from six nations, took to the water with Mapple yesterday, all strapping six-footers. This is a sport which sorts the men from the buoys.

So is he sad to be retiring? "Not at all. It's been an incredible journey, one I could never have imagined or dreamed of. I still love the sport, but I don't have the same dedication in my training. My son is 13 and my daughter is eight. All their lives they have been following me around the world. Now they want to do all the proper things that kids of that age do."

Although he has never seriously done anything else since his father first put him on a pair of waterskis on Lake Windermere, Mapple remains intensely proud of his British roots.

"I wanted my last pro ski ride to be here, where it all really began for me at world level. I'm basically here to say thank you to a lot of people who have helped me, particularly the British Federation, who have supported me even though I have lived in the US since 1984. But they have never forgotten me. They let me go and do my thing and have always been there for me. Which is why my first priority has always been for Britain."

And yesterday they came out in force to wave him goodbye as he skimmed across the sun-speckled water. Actually, he could have walked on it.

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