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Sports politics may be the one barrier disabled sailors can't overcome

2015 April 1

The politics of international amateur athletic competition are so inscrutable and Byzantine they make professional sports look wholesome in comparison. 

Professional sports are driven by the simple and pure imperative of an entertainment business—to make money.

International amateur sports are driven by a mysterious something else. Whatever it is, it’s not pure or simple, judging from the bizarre decisions issued by the ruling authorities.

Sailing has not been exempt from strange and inexplicable dictates of authorities that seem to answer to no one. Sailors are still scratching their heads over the decision by the International Sailing Federation to remove catamarans and the Star class from the 2016 Olympics.

That decision was merely unwarranted. The latest edict handed down from on high concerning international sailing competition shares that characteristic and adds a shot of cruelty.

That edict eliminated sailing from the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo. It came from the International Paralympic Committee without a lucid rationale for refusing to keep sailing as one the 22 sports, which include the likes of boccia and canoeing, that will be represented in the games.

What passed for an explanation was a statement that sailing did not meet the committee’s “minimum criteria for worldwide reach.”

Does that mean they were worried the audience for sailing wouldn’t be big enough? Maybe this is about money after all.

In the wake of outrage and angst that followed the ejection of sailing from competition the sport had been part of since 1996, considerable blame was heaped on ISAF and its Disabled Sailing Committee for failing to defend sailing’s place in the games aggressively enough. 

ISAF’s response was to launch an effort to get sailing reinstated, which has prompted a few “too little too late” comments. More impressive has been the response of individual sailors worldwide. Online petitions condemning the Paralympics decision and calling for its reversal have garnered more than 15,000 signatures. 

Most of the signatures no doubt have come from able-bodied sailors. You can take that as further evidence of the way sailors have welcomed and facilitated participation in our sport by men and women dealing with physical disabilities.

Once upon a time, there was great consternation over the barriers that limited accessibility to sailing—perceptions of excessive difficulty, expense, blue-blazer snootiness, that sort of thing. One of the phenomena that has deflated those stereotypes is the remarkable growth of disabled sailing. 

The work of organizations devoted to that cause and the development of boats adapted for disabled sailors get some of the credit, but so too does the encouragement of the sailing community.

Sailing, it turns out, is an activity beautifully suited for enjoyment by people with disabilities. With a little help getting aboard and some equipment modifications, these men and woman can not only experience the rewards that draw all of us to sailing, they can do it with independence and with skill that rivals that of able-bodied sailors.

One of the obnoxious ironies of the exclusion of sailing from the Paralympic games is that sailing is the discipline in which disabled athletes have more nearly achieved parity with able-bodied competitors than perhaps any other sport.

Whether sailing the single-person Norlin Mk3, which is a 2.4-meter version of the one-time America’s Cup boat the 12-Meter, or a two-person Skud 18 keelboat or the three-person Sonar, world-class disabled sailors, including some with severe disabilities, negotiate the race course with a display of skills virtually indistinguishable from those of able-bodied champions.

Meanwhile in competitive sailing at other levels, sailors who have been denied the opportunity to take part in sports competition because of their disabilities revel in sailboat racing.

If you are wondering about the value of sailing to people who have disabilities, go back to Erin Schanen’s story about the sailors in the Blind Match Racing World Championship in our March issue. Read the comments of these disabled competitors and feel their love of sailing. 

Scott Ford, who was blinded by a vaccine he was given in error when in the Navy, said, “Being on the water gives you a sense of control and freedom that you can’t get elsewhere.”

Vicki Sheen, a Brit who was born with 10% vision, said sailing makes her feel like a different person. “I feel sighted when I’m on the water. Even though I can’t see something, if someone describes something that’s happening on the water, I can visualize that scene and I remember it as though I saw it.”

Jim Kerr, a 74-year-old resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands, said, “When I became blind I decided you just have to put it behind you.” He told of how sailing helped teach him to “let the losses go.”

Such is the spirit that drives people who refuse to let their disabilities, whatever they may be, deprive them of the joys of sailing. 

A few bureaucrats making decisions about “worldwide reach” in the murky world of international sports politics aren’t going to dampen that spirit.

But that doesn’t change the fact that their imperious decision to exclude
sailing from the Paralympic games is not just a cruel blow to the Olympic-caliber disabled sailors who have been aspiring to that competition, but an insult to all of the men and women who by dint of perseverance and character have overcome their disabilities to master and enjoy sailing and to the sailing community that supports them.