Petersson, a New Skipper at ISAF’s Helm

Changes to Olympic sailing and increasing participation are just some of the goals Petersson has for the ISAF

Goran Petersson

Courtesy Isaf

After Paul Henderson’s 10-year tenure as president of the International Sailing Federation, a new leader was elected last fall and suddenly all was quiet. In contrast to Henderson, who constantly took strong, public positions on any and all issues at ISAF Council meetings and through the electronic media, the 63-year-old Swedish attorney who followed him has made few public pronouncements. After a few months, we realized that calling the media wasn’t on the top of Goran Petersson’s list, so we called up the former dinghy champion and learned that ISAF’s new president isn’t just a caretaking bureaucrat. He’s committed to raising participation levels, improving the rules, and changing the Olympic regatta format radically, including introducing real-time position-tracking technology for all boats. Are you going to continue Paul Henderson’s confrontational style of ISAF management or do you have a different approach? I have a different approach. I am not the confrontational type. You cannot beat the sailors. You have to cooperate with them the whole time and come in to win-win situations. We are all partners, we should work together, we have all the same goals, and if we don’t, we have to talk about it. I want to involve everyone in the administration, everybody in the executive committee, and, as you might have heard, we are now talking about strategic planning, and I want to involve the whole council in that. What initiatives coming from ISAF’s strategic visioning process are most exciting to you? The biggest challenge to our sport is participation. We are not only in competition with all other sports, but also with a lot of other activities. We have to make the sport attractive to young people-and older people-and we have to make it accessible, affordable, and exciting. We are providing the frame-the rules, judicial systems, and race officer training. We have everything from the first Optimist race to the last America’s Cup or Volvo Ocean race-it’s a very wide spectrum, so we have to take initiatives in different areas. Such as? When it comes to professional and elite sailing the format must be exciting for the media and sponsors. If you look at what’s been written about sailing in the general media in recent months, there’s been a lot about ocean racing and record breaking. That’s one type of exciting format. We’re trying to do the same for Olympic sailing. And outside elite sailing? We can make sailing more popular, let’s say in South America or Asia. Can we help the MNAs [member national authorities] by sending blueprints of how you train people and administer the sport? We can send a training coach to train their coaches. We can help support exchange programs so their sailors and officials have a chance to come abroad and meet others. I’ll give you an example-at the ISAF World Sailing Games next May, all the equipment will be supplied free of charge. Every nation can send someone to race and we’ll pay for it. It will be a chance for young sailors to sail against and learn from their favorites. Sailing has always been about sharing knowledge and experience. I learned to sail by talking to and listening to and looking at my peers sailing 505s. Besides promoting the sport in less developed countries, how could ISAF work with US SAILING to have an impact? We’re concerned about our growth, too. US SAILING is a partner with us. Everything we can provide, they can use. Everything we initiate, they can follow up and continue. We can give them the frame, but US SAILING has to tell us what’s going on in their country and in what way we can help. They know on their turf what kind of development is going on. And it’s also a matter of sharing. We think US SAILING could share, as an example, with all the Caribbean nations. Is ISAF’s focus on small boats and Olympic classes out of touch with the rest of the sport where people are getting older and moving into keelboats? The first thing is to be aware of it. No, I’m not concerned about it, but I’m aware of it and I’m considering it. I’m one of those people myself. I was a 505 sailor. Now I’m a Dragon sailor. Soon I will perhaps only be a cruising sailor. Of course we cannot be seen to be only for dinghy and young people, but there’s a growing divide we have to look at also. We must attract the young generation. I have sons, and I want them to be sailors. What’s your approach to better serve the offshore and big-boat constituency? It’s not a traditional part of ISAF and there’s been difficulty integrating it. We now have an offshore committee to provide better service to this group. On the other hand, we will not develop our own measurement or rating systems. We are trying to see how we can help. One thing is perhaps to make rules to allow you to get a rating certificate anywhere. We can also try to help organize the international racing calendar.And we are constantly looking at the safety regulations for different types of offshore races. ISAF’s events committee is focused on improving the Olympic format for media and spectators. Is this important to ISAF because that’s all people at your meetings care about, and because of the millions of dollars the Games generate for ISAF? If you think about the Olympics and media attention, everybody knows about the Olympics. Many more than know about ISAF world championships or other sailing events. It makes sailing talked about and written about. This has to do with participation. Yes, there’s the financial part, but ISAF is 100 years old, and the money influence from Olympic sailing is less than 10 years old. We cannot develop sailing just looking at the Olympics, but the attention has to come this way because the Olympics is naturally the best known event. If you look at any other sport, the Olympic question is always the first question. That’s natural. I’ve read the Events Committee’s presentation [see copy at]. Is the goal of the new plan-to make the format more media and spectator friendly-aimed at simply preserving 11 medals or is it’s success critical for keeping the Olympics in sailing at all? Well, who can tell? We think that for every new Olympics we have to develop sailing in different ways, and we’ve done that. We took in the 49er, which was very exciting. We changed the race format and number of races. We have to continue to be relevant for the participants, the media, and the spectators. But it’s not so easy to be a spectator in sailing, and it has to be exciting for those who watch. The events committee is continuing to look at what has happened since the last Olympics and is comparing sailing with the development of other sports. One trend is toward shorter compeititons. And events that are easier to understand. Sailing rules are too complicated [and so is] our scoring system. Is boardsailing on its way out of the Olympics due to a lack of constituency or is it a central event because of its athleticism? Boardsailing is a very central event. It’s quite exciting in the right conditions, it’s for young people, and it’s being practiced in many countries. I certainly hope that it will develop. What will the impact of a dramatic change-such as much shorter Olympic courses-be at the local level? If you [can get the media] talking about sailing, it’s always positive at local levels. But I fully understand what you’re asking, and as a Dragon sailor at my home club, I don’t think I would make the same changes in our racing. The Dragon is an old keelboat and a good example where I don’t want to do the same kind of races. In some classes it may have an impact, but that’s a local decision. If you want to sail Dragons outside San Diego in the old traditional way on a triangle course, please do that. The important thing is that people are satisfied and can race any way they want. ISAF will provide rules and race officials for different types of sailing. As an attorney, umpire, and all-around rules guy, do you see ways to further simplify the rules? We made an initiative 12 years ago to simplify the rules, led by two Americans, Bill Bentsen and Dick Rose. That was difficult, because as I used to say, all relationships between boats on the course must remain the same. But we can try to do a few things. For example, when I taught my kids I said, “You need to know port and starboard; you need to know same tack, and clear ahead and clear astern. Then you need to know how you round a mark. Do that and you’ll get through the race.” If we try to teach them more than that they’ll never remember it all anyway. That’s how very young people should start-teach them four rules. If you give them a rulebook, they’ll be frightened. Their parents will probably be frightened. We must make it easier, and perhaps, too, for language reasons, we should do it in pictures. Wherever we can, let’s make it less complicated. Maybe we should’ve have any drop races because they don’t have any in other sports. Maybe we should get rid of protests altogether and say you have to have referees. Will the focus on the Olympics, including boat-tracking technology for premature starters, and in offshore on high-tech measuring equipment end up increasing the complexity and cost at local levels? At the very top level you have to make sure that the playing field is even. That’s where you can invest in these technologies. On the local level it can’t be too expensive. The whole aim is always to make it easier, more accessible, and more affordable to race. If you want to race a cruising sailboat, it’s complicated and difficult and perhaps expensive to get a measurement certificate. If we tried to make that easier and less expensive, then perhaps you can get a certificate wherever you want to race irrespective of the rule you want to measure under. I’m not saying ISAF will develop offshore rules, but we can perhaps help service the rules that exist. On the other hand, for the Volvo Ocean Race, it’s not too expensive to invest in tracking every boat, everywhere, every day. And if you were my coach in the Olympics and I was sailing in the Finn and you could see every tack I made and everywhere I went-after the race you could tell me where I lost the race and where I won it. And if you had to cancel a race due to foul weather, you could immediately tell if everybody’s in or if somebody’s still out there. But you have to balance these improvements not to increase costs where unnecessary. Is it true that ISAF has been paid off to leave the America’s Cup alone to manage its own affairs? No. We haven’t dealt with the America’s Cup any differently any other big event. The America’s Cup organizers are very capable. The Cup has a special history and special rules. Remember, we’re here to serve the sport, not to try to stop anything. We have an agreement with them to provide the race officials. And they-and anybody else with a big event-have to contribute to the sport. Everybody sailing on an America’s Cup yacht or ocean-racing yacht has come up through the system of sailing. We believe that everybody, depending on resources, should contribute back to the MNAs and ISAF. That’s what the America’s Cup is doing. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about our sport, what would that be? I’d make the rules much easier so I could say, “Here’s the rulebook; it’s one page.” Difficult as it is, we have to try. This is a very traditional and old sport, and I think we have to be careful with our values. We shouldn’t change everything, but on the other hand, our kids are growing up in the electronic world and without young people in the boat, it will be too late. Is that one reason to focus on tracking technology more heavily and digitize as many aspects of high-profile events as possible? Give as much accurate information as possible. This is the way to make it interesting for the spectator. Who would you like to see in a 25-boat fleet? Any commentator would like to be able to tell you that, at this very moment, the leader is 3 meters ahead of the New Zealand boat. And third is the U.S. boat, and if this result stands they will win such and such medal. We want to see as many nations as you like on the screen so you can tell your viewers what position they are in and if they improve two places, for example, they’ll win a gold. That would be much more interesting for anybody watching and commentating. Let’s provide more information quickly and accurately. What appeals to you about working for ISAF when you could be spending more time in your Dragon? First of all, the sport is fantastic. Can you imagine another sport that you can be involved in all your life, everywhere around the world, and that’s very environmentally friendly? You can develop own lifestyle. You have to be able to function together with teammates. You have to take your own decisions and you have to be absolutely responsible for them, because nobody is there to help you. You have to learn a lot about water, wind-it’s not just that you have to be very strong or very fast. Sailing can be a help to you in your life. And it’s a fantastic way to meet knowledgeable, different, interesting people. I enjoy it. Is there anything else you’d like to say to American sailors? America is the biggest sailing country in the world. You have a vast majority of opportunities. You should go sailing more than anybody else. I hope you use your opportunities a lot.


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