Percy ponders...

The double Olympic Gold medallist considers the pull between sport and the media

Friday August 27th 2010, Author: Iain Percy, Location: United Kingdom

I have just finished two very different weeks of sailboat racing. The first was the 1851 Cup. Held in Cowes, the home of the first ever America's Cup race, it was appropriately a head to head battle between the America's Cup holders, BMW Oracle Racing and ourselves Team Origin. The second was the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta.

Both events had great racing and fair competition and I personally had a great time. The 1851 Cup held a number of 45 minute match races in the Solent in evenly matched boats from the last AC. The racing was short and sharp intended for the public and the TV (on Sky sports this weekend) but the racing was held far enough from shore for pretty steady winds and the TV crews on board went unnoticed (no easy task for the cameramen!). Fundamentally it was a event to showcase America's Cup racing, but it quickly turned into a full on bare-knuckle tussle between two fired up professional teams with a point to prove.

The Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta was mine and Andrew's [Simpson] first time in the Star since our World Championship win in January. It was strange being back racing on longer courses in big fleets far offshore - it felt worlds away from the match racing events we've done this year on rivers in Malaysia and 150m diameter harbours in Korea or even the recent AC-style events where we have been jumping into a supplied IACC boat and 20 minutes later the race has started. For good or bad, it was sailboat racing as I remembered it as a kid in an Optimist or a Laser.

It got me thinking about how sailing has changed to accommodate spectator involvement. That change has been part driven by groups (including the professional competitors) that use sport for profit; but to be fair it is also driven by the various governing bodies to promote sailing and encourage participation. In some ways sailing is particularly vulnerable to manipulation for spectators appeal, mainly because it is hard to watch either live or on screen at the moment; but also because as we don't have a fixed formula for competition. Rugby has become a highly successful professional game over the last 20 years but although the quality of play has undoubtedly increased, the format of the contest has remained basically intact. The rugby sevens side of the sport has allowed a number of changes to the format and a fairly large dollop of razzmatazz. It has worked and although I have never been I hear the tournaments are a great day out. There is no talk of doing anything similar with the World Cup however, the highest echelon. Cricket and the successful twenty20 experiment is another example of an exciting spin off that works but never pretends to be something it's not. Imagine how quickly the prestige and mystic of the ashes would blow away if it was held over a few Twenty20 evening games.

Interestingly; media, television and supporter interaction seemed to be a topic of conversation that ran through both weeks. These conversations were held over formal discussions about the next America's Cup with BOR, over GPS tracker systems with the organisers in Weymouth, and more generally with mates over a beer. Again the question that kept coming back was: how much do we want to change our sport for more media return? Now I don't see that as a polarised debate, it is not the big bad business world verses the Corinthian yachtsman - if it was I would be firmly with the media types anyway. Our sport has always been hugely varied and evolved over time, and anyway who am I to say what is the best expression of sailing? It is probably more ocean passages than the 1.5 mile windward/leeward courses I was doing last week if you get right down to it.

I can say though that 'toss a coin TV show racing' is not my cup of tea. I have nothing against people doing it, I even have friends who are bankers, but for me it isn't sport. Competitors in any sport need to have a primary and totally overpowering goal of winning by being better than the opposition, that is what separates boxing from WWF wrestling. That is why grown men cry at a football match and only adolescent teenage boys (who haven't yet discovered girls) like Hulk Hogan. So that's how I answer my fundamental question: that sailing needs to be a fair challenge of physical, technical and tactical abilities over a series of races.

If we need to compromise the venue so much even a series is not enough to equalise the fickleness of the breeze, we have gone too far. If we compromise the boats so that only technical elements count, we have gone too far. If we start the race when the TV helicopters have taken off but we have no wind, we have gone too far.

The other side of the argument is that sailing and specifically the America's Cup has always had an evolving format. We re-enacted the original race during the 1851 Cup with a lap of the Isle of Wight and that sure as hell didn't feel like the best test of tactical, technical and physical prowess. Although answering the question of the best future for sailing isn't easy, I have every confidence that a neutral and honest representation of the sailing family will get us pretty close. At the moment our sport is formally represented by ISAF and it is their job to take the lead in designing the future for our sport. Unfortunately they have often been too quiet when the sport has needed a strong voice - no one individual's fault, more a result of an committee led structure hampering decision making.

It gets trickier when we start to look at the sailing world through the eyes of the myriad of different interested parties. Some are easily understandable; a TV production company wants to have crash bang racing off the beach so it is cheaper to film a program that the general public will buy. An event organising company wants to sell sponsorship of the series and host city rights to offset the cost of the TV production and race organisation and make a profit. An America's Cup holder wants to organise an event that reflects the history the prestige of the oldest sporting trophy, and be the pinnacle of sailboat racing as enjoyed by a huge worldwide population (oh, it's an event organising company too). We sailors are no better - we want the sport as we have always enjoyed it, but we want more public interest so others can enjoy sailing and let's face it, to make a living too.

I think the point of the article is to make people realise the path sailing is presently taking is driven a little too much by commercial interests, organisations that have little concern with the best compromise for the sailing family, and are (rightly) driven by profit. The media all too often fuels the interests of these commercial outfits. For example some sailors are trying to be turned into celebrities way beyond their standing by the organisers of the more commercial competitions they enter. Websites are filled with reports of how the best sailors in the world "battled it out" in fantastic conditions. I sail in some of those races and find it hard to marry the words with reality of the duck pond I have just drifted around in the rain. Other groups use serial bloggers to represent their point of view... please don't think that the public in Cowes didn't enjoy the 1851 Cup, it was a good balance of fair competition and spectator enjoyment and that was why it worked. We should not be against commercial partners, but we should not let them dictate our sports direction, either through money or through the manipulation of the media.

The thing that makes sport special is not the size of the show. The Olympics and America's Cup have been contests of sporting excellence for generations, always hotly contested by teams and individuals wanting to prove they are the best, and more recently watched by spectators enjoying exactly that passion. I hope sailing can follow the examples of other sports and keep the sporting contest uncompromised (not necessarily unchanged), while at the same time work on technologies that can bring our complex and multi-challenging sport into the living room. That way sailing at the Olympics and the America's Cup will continue to be enjoyed into their fourth centuries.



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