As we wait with baited breath to hear what Darth Armstrong has to say to Oprah I look at Professional Sailing and I keep seeing the similarities with Professional Cycling. Not for the Bad reasons like Bullies and performance enhancing drugs, but for the Good Reasons like representing your country at the Olympics and World Titles, Team mates working for one another behind a strong leader and development paths for young rookies. Last but not least, the ability for People with big ego’s and huge cheque books to put their money into a sport that they love.
The one big difference – Volume of Competitors
Lance Armstrong put cycling on the American (and Australian) map. Without the Texan setting records there may not have been the focus on Cycling that there is. Cycling is a sport that has a low barrier to entry. Most teenagers can afford a half decent bike and ride anywhere – be it land locked towns or Mountainous villages people ride push bikes. This exposes many to the sport. Cheap(ish) bikes and tarmac make it pretty easy to get into cycling and practice as required. In comparison, boats aren’t cheap at any point and not everyone has easy access to water ways to practice.
To be in the top 1% of Cyclists takes a lot. Think of all those MAMIL (look it up if you don’t know what it is) riding around your town on Sunday mornings. For every one of those there is a serious 16-21 year old pushing themselves. These teenagers both boys and girls are dreaming big and wanting to go professional. The Number of professionals cyclists vs professional sailors is pretty comparable to the amount of News and TV coverage each sport gets. Cycling has a very big base with a very pointy top of their performance Pyramid. Sailing has a very pointy top as well, but the base is nothing the size of the bikes.
As a result of the Cycling pointy top being quite crowded people turned to PEDs to lift them above the crowded 1%. Sailing doesn’t have that and until there is some sort of miracle and we are seeing Sailing of Free to air TV in every country I don’t think that problem with arise. Being the top 1% of sailing at the moment has its rewards but the peak isn’t as crowded as it is in Cycling.
The same names appear on the Podium at Olympics, ISAF events and all major class world Titles. Nathan Outteridge showed dashes of brilliance at the recent A-Class worlds, he’s won Moth Titles. Tom Slingsby has won an Etchells world Title. Round the World Yachtsman Chris Nicholson has won 5o5 World Titles and was a pack leader in the 49er. Ben Ainslee can jump from a Finn to a High Performance AC 45 and show how adaptable he is.
In the female classes it is similar. Having won the Silver at London in Match Racing Olivia Price is now turning to the High performance 49erFX. Ellise Rechichi former 470 Olympic Gold Medalist is moving inthe 49erFX class. Adrian Cahalan, one of Australia’s best (if not THE best) female sailors of all time was a successful 18 foot skiff sailor and now holds the Course record for the Sydney to Hobart Ocean race as Navigator.
The Best sailors seem to be able to perform across a range of disciplines. There are very few cyclists who can perform in a velodrome, individual Time trial or a mountainous Grand Tour event. Cadel Evans is decent at 2 out of those 3. Not spectacular at any, but decent at 2. Luke Durbridge just won the National TT and Road Race, a feat people are shaking their head at as it’s never been done before. Pete Burling is skippering Team Korea in the AC World Series, won a London Olympic Silver medal in the 49er and just blitzed one an amazing list of skippers in the Aussie Moth Titles – he will go to the Moth Worlds in Hawaii favourite.
The Structures are the same – Olympics, Worlds, Nationals, States, Club and PRO Teams
Professional Sailing is moving toward a “Team” structure with the America’s Cup (and associated AC World Series) attracting teams, both privately owned and run and Government sponsored. No professional team can truly call itself the National team at this level. Similar to the way professional Cycling teams are made up. People still ask why Orica-GreenEdge cyclists aren’t all Australian. The same can be said for sailing team, Oracle Team USA. They are teams made up of the best available resources. A sailor will be chosen to go and work for a team or syndicate and offered a job. It is that simple. Contracts are drawn up (and thrown out) and performance is expected. If the performance isn’t there, as with all business there are consequences.
All sportsmen want to go to the Olympics. To do that in both sailing and cycling you have to perform from the bottom up. In Australia to gain access to the Olympics for sailing you have to qualify. The top performers are selected to sail for the Australian sailing team to qualify for the Olympics at ISAF events. In cycling, especially the elite Road Race, the team is selected based on performance at UCI events, like the Worlds and Tour de France. In both sports you work your way up from Club level through to National and potentially onto World Titles. Just like cycling high volume events like the Laser or even Optimist only have an allocated number of competitors for each country at the Worlds. Again qualification at the National level gains you a ticket to the big show.
The are both Expensive
But that is all fine and well if you have a wealthy benefactor. But both sports make it expensive to travel around the world, shipping bikes and boats etc. To make a decent living the best are approached by professional teams. Sailing might not have the infrastructure that Cycling has, but with the Youth America’s Cup, dual boat Teams like Oracle more sailors are being exposed to that pointy part of the Pyramid. Hopefully through development programs for young sailors, like Yachting Australia’s ‘pathways’ we will see the volume of youngsters start to match that of cycling. Competition breeds quality events.
Outteridge and Jensen’s effort across the week of sailing at London was amazing. Some of the best TV of the entire Olympics was the Women’s match racing final. It had every thing – competitive sailors taking it to 5 races. Excitement plus. This is what I’d like to see – Lots of really good competitors all being pushed by the people one rung down the ladder from them.
Without professional teams people like Pete Burling and Josh McKnight may never have been exposed to America’s Cup sailing and competing against racing celebrities like Coutts and Spithill. It’s great and we need to encourage it. Not many of us just go and watch Sailing as a spectacle. Go and try it – tell your friends who knows they might be a future sponsor. Sailing needs all the exposure (and money) it can get.