Sailing: Fief mentality stealing the future: Stuart Alexander examines some possible solutions to the crisis facing the sailing world

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The Independent Online
THE combined whiff of revolution and rearguard reaction is gathering in the Piccadilly area of London this weekend as the International Yacht Racing Union gathers for its annual general meeting and an Olympic Games' debriefing.

It also has to consider the next Olympics. It is in this area that the representatives of the 107 member countries on the governing body may have some tough decisions to make. It would be pleasing to report that yacht racing is at the crossroads. That would be simple. Its present problems, however, are extraordinarily complex.

It would be helpful to say that a more dynamic IYRU has the power to set the sport on the right track. The truth is that each national authority wishes jealously to guard its fiefdom. Plans for a streamlining of the IYRU still see it as a servant secretariat rather than an executive.

So the world governing body of the sport has representatives whose first responsibility is to their national goals. And there are 52 non-voting representatives of different classes of yacht whose first responsibility is to the furtherance of their class association.

It is difficult to know who has the first responsibility of looking after the good of the sport or if that person has any power to do anything about it. An executive director has been appointed yet has not been given appropriate powers.

The cage has been rattled from the outside by the International Olympic Committee. It started last year when the IYRU, for the first time, held its annual general meeting outside London and went to Madrid. Three central directives emerged; numbers attending the Olympics would be curbed, the search for excellence meant the weeding out of no-hopers in elimination trials, and equipment costs had to be kept down.

Until this year each member country could send only one representative for each of the 10 categories of racing at the Olympics. If any country had the top three competitors in the world that made no difference.

The IYRU president, Peter Tallberg, warned the sceptics in Madrid that there would be elimination trials. The London meeting should now ratify that for the 1996 Games. The problem of equipment cost is more difficult, given that there are a lot of well- entrenched types of boat which may have to go. One of them may be the Soling, in which Lawrie Smith won Britain's only 1992 medal. It costs between pounds 50,000 and pounds 120,000 to put a Soling campaign together.

This is further complicated because the structure of the sport at the grass roots is such a mess that any change at the top would be beneficial only if there was also a change at the bottom. The position is just as bad on the big boat front. There, racing is run by the Offshore Racing Council with boats, until recently, all given performance handicaps under the International Offshore Rule.

New rules mean lengthy development problems and, in any case, the mature IOR rule was ideal if only construction and stability standards were beefed up to give the boats longer life.

As it is, the sport is in confusion because owners do not know what to buy next, sponsors have seen the IOR circuit dwindle, and leadership from both the ORC and the Royal Ocean Racing Club in Britain has been indecisive. The ORC, although affiliated to the IYRU, operates autonomously.

A lot of the Olympic classes are too expensive to be a credible option for the masses whom the IYRU wishes to attract, especially in the poorer countries, often even in the richer countries.

Equipment need not be the cheapest possible, particularly as it may be provided free for the Olympics. In any case, broken time, travel and training costs account for the majority of expenses, as they do in other sports.

The races need to be shorter if sailing is to interest television audiences, but there needs to be more of them to average out the luck factor. One of the more radical thoughts is to have Olympic fleets split into groups of eight, each racing five 20-minute races, the top four going through into the next knock-out round. Another is to increase the number of races from seven, with the worst result discarded, to 10 with no discard.

Britain's Olympic coach, Rod Carr, wants consideration given to racing which is also representative of the way most people compete every weekend, on inland waters and reservoirs. 'The details have to be worked out, but it is an interesting and exciting proposal,' he said.

There is even a proposition to keep match racing, but in bigger, possibly five-person, boats. Only 10 would go through to the Games: the Nations Cup could become a qualifier. Yet a major task for the IYRU is to make Olympic sailing more achievable by devising a format about which the clubs are enthusiastic.

Dinghy clubs need to be able to race in all the Olympic classes, rather than watching from afar as a rarified breed plays in an unattainable arena. The boats should be a men's and women's doublehander (same boat), a men's and women's singlehander (different boats), men's and women's board (same board, maybe different rig and sail) and men's and women's catamaran (same boat).

The men's double and single handers could be further split but weight divisions can lead to distorted training and drug abuse. It would be better to develop designs which cope with the variety of body shapes and sizes.

There needs to be a ladder up for talent, a ladder down for equipment and, by finding a format for that, the IYRU should be able to sell and help set up uniform styles of competition all over the world from schools to the top.

It is time the IYRU represented the whole sport. The question then is should the IYRU govern it? Only if it is allowed to by its members rather than relying on a meddlesome committee system.

This week will see an attempt to steer those members, some willing, some stubborn, into an era that is only four years away. The key will be Olympic sailing, the measure of success will be enthusiastic moves by grass roots clubs to adapt their systems to take advantage of it.