It Wasn't Broke, But Trials System Needed Fixing Anyway
The new selection process for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team is a move in the right direction, but it does have a cost.
|**The Star class Trials in 2007 was the most competitive among the U.S. selection regattas. However, the end result, a second straight Olympics without a medal, is one reason the 2012 U.S. Olympic Sailing Team will be selected based on a pair of international regattas. **|
My first major assignment for Sailing World was to cover the Men’s and Women’s 470 Trials in October of 1999 in St. Petersburg, Fla. I’ve always held a deep respect for the Olympics and I remember being more than a little anxious about covering such a charged and important regatta.
It was largely easier than I thought. Nonetheless, I came away from that event impressed with the spirit, intensity, and purity of the competition as well as its stripped-down essence: win or go home. There was so much riding on the top spot in the standings. For the vast majority of the competitors, disappointment, sometimes of a heart-crushing magnitude, was the end result. The Olympics may be the pinnacle of dinghy sailing. But just making the Olympic team is a major victory and, medal or not, something that can never be taken away. The Trials were usually sailed in relative obscurity and lacked any significant consolation prize.
I use the past tense because the Trials, as sailors in the United States have known them for as long as I can determine, are no more. Olympic Sailing Committee chair Dean Brenner, along with the OSC, and the staff of the U.S. Sailing Team AlphaGraphics, have changed to a more modern model, similar to those used by most other top sailing countries.
Selection to the U.S. Olympic Team for the 2012 Games will be based upon the results of the 2011 Sail For Gold in Weymouth, England, next summer and the 2011 ISAF Combined World Sailing Championships in Perth, Australia, in December of 2011. Low overall score wins the Olympic berth. Qualifying for those two events, which will have limited berths, will be take place in four events on the Sailing World Cup tour in 2011: Rolex Miami OCR, Princess Sofia in Palma, Hyères Week in France, and the Delta Lloyd Regatta in Holland. See the full release from US SAILING here.
Generally I think that most people resist change. So if support is split, half in favor of change, half against, then the change is probably a good thing, given the natural bias against rocking the boat (pardon the pun). As I’m 50-50 on the change, and gradually working more toward the side of the new format, my one-line reaction is: “Good Move!” But that doesn’t mean it comes without a cost.
• Brenner’s logic for the change is convincing (for more from Brenner, click here). And I certainly won’t miss defending the U.S. system to my foreign colleagues. They particularly enjoyed pointing out how the U.S. Women’s 470 team that lost the one-shot Trials in the fall of 2007, went on to win the class 2008 world championship a few months later in Australia, leaving the reigning world champion as spectators for the Olympics. And I’ve always wanted to visit Perth and Western Australia—site of the 2011 ISAF Combined Olympic class worlds—which has nearly one million square miles of land and only 2.3 million people. Rhode Island, for comparison’s sake, packs 1 million people into 1,214 square miles.
• I tend to agree that it’s a mistake to fix things that aren’t broke. However, looking at the Trials process merely in terms of whether the best team was selected in each event of late (I would say this has been the case, with a few exceptions) is taking too myopic a viewpoint. I think there are three prime reasons behind this change. 1. It’s better to select sailors when they’re sailing against top competition. The Trials fields were often very thin and winning a regatta with 10 boats, only three of which are serious contenders, is vastly different from winning an Olympic regatta with 25 boats, 10 of which are excellent and the rest of which are very good. 2. This new selection system will force sailors to sail hard for virtually an entire Olympic cycle. This is standard operating procedure for top Olympic class sailors. However, there were many American sailors over the past few Olympics that sailed reduced schedules in the first, second, and even third year of the quad. They still won the trials, but they probably would’ve been stronger Olympic contenders had they sailed more internationally. The new format will force teams to do more of the workup that’s required to win an Olympic medal. 3. Running the Trials is a pain. Brenner didn’t bring this up, so I’m guessing a bit, but it’s a large undertaking (and expensive). The debacle involving the final race of the 2007 Women’s RS:X Trials highlights what can happen. The Sailing World Cup events and ISAF Combined Worlds are used to this sort of scrutiny and pressure and should be better equipped to deal with it.
• Spreading the selection process over two major regattas will ensure a broader mix of conditions and provide more room for sailors to recover from a bad race or some bad luck. Of course with that many boats on the course, there’s more bad luck to go around and we could well have a situation where a team from another country influences—in the process of racing hard for their own interests—the selection process for the U.S. Olympic Team.
|**Zach Railey was pushed hard by Geoff Ewenson and others in the 2007 Finn Trials. However the bulk of the fleet was often far behind the eventual silver medalist. **|
• The prime disadvantages of the change are two fold, from my perspective: 1. The Trials were great for development. **In each Trials regatta there were a few up and coming sailors, who had no real dreams of winning. They were there for the experience, to get a glimpse of a possible future, to dip their toes into the Olympic waters and see how it felt. They also got to see how seriously the top teams prepared and competed. And when teams offloaded unneeded equipment at a cut rate, these hungry young sailors were there to pick it up. It also guaranteed a few big domestic regattas (Pre-Trials a year out, possible a practice regatta beforehand, and the Trials itself). For classes like the Star, this is not a problem; there are plenty of big, competitive regattas in the United States each year. But the 470 class has few annual North American events outside of the Rolex Miami OCR. Same for the RS:X and the 49er. In defense of the U.S. Sailing Team AlphaGraphics, the development program has been ramped up exponentially over the last five years and many top youth sailors have the opportunity to go to Europe to compete, which should mitigate much of what is lost. 2. There’s no better way to attract media interest to an obscure sport (at least from the general population’s perspective) than to attach “Olympics” to it. **The Trials always merited some coverage in the local sports section wherever they took place, exposure that was not usually afforded to, for example, the Finn North Americans or even the Rolex Miami OCR. Plus the favorites might grab a few inches in their hometown papers. The latter should remain the same. However, general coverage of the Trials in England and Australia (hopefully, I’ll at least be at the latter) will likely be less than it would be were they contested on home waters.
• This new system, requiring a year of competition mostly in Europe, will be very expensive. I don’t think any of the top teams/sailors will beg off because of the expense this time around. However in the future you may find sailors—I’m thinking of the America’s Cup vets who might jump back into the Star class inbetween Cup campaigns—hesitant to embark knowing how expensive and lengthy the selection process is. Of course, as Dean Brenner points out, this is the reality of an Olympic campaign: it’s expensive and exhausting. Anyone unable to make of that kind of commitment, regardless of innate talent, isn’t like be in the running for a medal.
• This move was probably necessary for the 470 classes, the RS:X classes, and the 49er, where the domestic fleets have dwindled below critical mass and the Trials would’ve been forced, small-fleet affairs featuring lots of match racing between the favorites. I think US SAILING could’ve held credible domestic Trials for the Laser, Star, Finn, Radial, and Women’s Match Racing, which will have the first half of its Trials in the United States. However, I can’t knock Dean Brenner’s logic that this format will improve the United States medal chances in 2012 and down the road.