Think back to the iconic images of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games that splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world. There was Usain Bolt, crossing the finish line on his way to being crowned the world's fastest man. There was Michael Phelps, arms raised in victory as he clinched a record-breaking eight medals in swimming. There was not, however, a snapshot of a fleet of 470s rounding the windward mark. In fact, the most mainstream media attention sailing may have gotten was quick glimpses of endless gobs of algae blooming in the waters at Qingdao just weeks before the event.
Ben Ainslie wants this all to change.
As London celebrated its one-year countdown to the beginning of the 2012 Olympic Games last week, a column by the celebrated sailor and three-time gold medalist appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Ainslie addresses the perennial problem of not only getting people excited about following Olympic sailing, but getting people excited about following - and participating in - sailing in general. He writes:
Like many other Olympic disciplines, sailing has a tendency to be almost entirely overlooked by the wider world once the Games are over. I can understand that because it is difficult to follow, whether live or on TV. It is confusing to the casual observer.
In football or cricket you know when someone has played a blinder. With sailing most people have no idea what the competitors are up to or how much skill they are exhibiting on the water. Plus, there are so many different classes and categories, from solo around-the-world ocean racing to inland dinghy racing. No league to follow. No regular fix.
I’ve seen it happen four times already — in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing. The interest builds and then just as quickly dies down. I’m hoping that having a home Games will make the difference and this time we will retain more than just a passing interest although I’m not sure how.
Do we need to be more colourful as individuals? Grow our hair long and get caught driving golf buggies down the M4? Perhaps we should try to develop the televisual side of the sport to make it more appealing and easier to follow? That is what they are trying to do with the America’s Cup with the switch to super-fast multihulls and good luck to them. Although I’m not a massive fan of the rule change I really hope it proves successful because it might provide a template for other types of sailing.
All I know is that the next year represents a massive opportunity for sailing in this country and we must capitalise on it. We must get the message out there that the sport is far more accessible than people think. The classic response is ‘oh, I don’t live by the sea’, but in fact most sailing at a basic level takes place on lakes and reservoirs. Ellen MacArthur famously grew up in the middle of Derbyshire. We must get the point across that it is a myth that you need to be from a privileged background to have a go. Down where we compete in Weymouth you can ‘Sail for a Fiver’ and there are similar schemes up and down the country. Give it a try. You won’t regret it.
Meanwhile, the London Olympics planning committee has some other ideas about making sailing accessible to everyone. While earlier plans broached the possibility of keeping a public waterfront park close to the Weymouth venue open to all spectators, the planning committee now looks to fence off the area as a ticketed venue.
John Burtwistle, a municipal councilman in Weymouth, was quoted in another article as saying: ""When the award of the Olympics to London was first made the councils involved down here said they would do everything in their power to promote the games. The bottom line is that they are trying to make Olympic sailing a pay-per-view event in Weymouth."
There are less than three hundred and sixty five days for this debate to play out before the torch is lit: hopefully Ainslie's wishes for sailing will become a reality this time around.
Photo credit telegraph.co.uk