USA, it’s Olympic sailing crisis. Paul Cayard quits the federation

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What is happening to American sailing? Not even two years ago, Paul Cayard, skipper of Il Moro di Venezia and the only non-Italian to have won the Sailor of the Year award in 1993, had accepted the role of executive director of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, with the goal of bringing Team USA back to the podium. Last February 24, he resigned.

Paul Cayard steps down as executive director of US Olympic Sailing Team
Paul Cayard steps down as executive director of US Olympic Sailing Team

Paul Cayard: I’m not a quitter, but I know when it’s time to go

In a statement on his website, Paul Cayard announced that he has stepped down as executive director of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. “Unfortunately, the current Board of US Sailing recently restructured the Olympic Department, including my role as Executive Director. The new structure is not what I am committed to, nor something I am willing to be a part of, so I resigned on February 24. I’m not a quitter, but I know when it’s time to go.”

US Sailing: from Olympic sailing phenomena…

Team USA has a long history of dominance and success in Olympic sailing. In Los Angeles 1984, star athletes won gold and silver in all seven disciplines. Over the next eight years, from ’84-’92, they were the strongest Olympic team in the world, winning an impressive 21 medals. This is no longer the case today.

Left high and dry

In the last three Olympics, 2012/2020, Team USA has managed to bring home only one bronze (Caleb Paine in Finn at the 2016 Rio Olympics). It has been since the 2008 Beijing Olympics that Americans have not made the podium; the last gold was won by Anna Tunnicliffe in the Laser Radial class. The U.S. is no longer the winningest nation in Olympic history. That honor has now gone to Great Britain, which dominated the world stage with a complete change of strategy after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Anna Tunnicliffe Olympic gold in the Laser Radial class at Beijing 2008
Anna Tunnicliffe Olympic gold in the Laser Radial class at Beijing 2008

From amateurs to professionals

In less than 20 years British sailing has gone from being a largely amateur sport to being dominated by professionals. Until Atlanta many of the coaches, doctors, and technicians had day jobs, from which they took a leave of absence to take care of the Olympic campaign. The lack of professionalism meant that the knowledge and experience gained was lost after each Olympics. Sailors invested so many resources in an Olympic campaign that they often did not feel inclined to pass them on. It simply was not in their interest to do so, as it could help a rival. Injuries were also a problem. “The British attitude was not to worry about it, that there would be another opportunity” said John Derbyshire, former British Olympic team manager and coach of Sir Ben Ainslie.

Sir Ben Ainslie, the most successful sailor in history, the only one to have won medals in five consecutive editions of the Olympic Games
Sir Ben Ainslie, the most successful sailor in history, the only one to have won medals in five consecutive editions of the Olympic Games

Change of course

This attitude changed in 1997, when some of the money collected by the National Lottery, the state’s national lottery, was directed toward sports. With these funds, athletes were able to focus full-time on their Olympic preparation. Money has been invested to make sure the team has access to the best coaches, doctors, psychologists, managers and logistics experts. Their performance is under constant quarterly scrutiny: if there is no progress they risk losing funding. If they are injured, they receive the best treatment, but if they do not recover, they are discarded from the team. Brutal logic: results or no funding.

The team system

Team GB is divided into three teams: the youth team, the improvement team and, finally, the competitive team, whose only goal is the Olympics. Between 60 and 70 sailors are funded full-time. The best can expect to receive about £40,000 in lottery funding each year. In addition, the Royal Yachting Association (the British Sailing Federation) contributes to training costs. Grants are also provided so that sailors can get the best equipment. They own their boats, which encourages them to take care of them and they can sell them. Top sailors make good money from sponsorships, but no one, not even multiple Olympic champion Sir Ben Ainslie, earns as much as a soccer player. The team system allows younger sailors to have the opportunity to train alongside the elite, while at the same time, the top sailors are forced to always watch their backs and wonder who is in their wake.

Technology and science

Team GB has begun to turn the art of sailing into a science. There are engineers trying to help sailors make small changes to their sails and boats that could save vital seconds in a race. It has analysts using video and satellite technologies to record performance. The goal is to build on all this data to improve performance in the water. Details of locations, equipment, crews, rivals and times are collected and preserved. The teams’ coaches do not live stably in the UK. They spend much of their time learning from their counterparts in other sports, but also with experts from companies and organizations ranging from McLaren’s Formula 1 team to Google and the Red Arrows (Royal Air Force Aerobatic Group).

James Barbaro

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