ISAF, What is it good for?

Published on October 29th, 2014

The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) is the world governing body for the sport of sailing. But unless you try to pull back the curtain, ISAF is mostly this thing that exists somewhere and does something. Here Malcolm McKeag takes us on a tour of ISAF’s evolution …

Before it was called the International Sailing Federation, otherwise known as ISAF, the organization was born as the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU).

The IYRU was formed in London in 1906 only and entirely to administer the International Rule of measurement (the Metre boat rule) and to coalesce the various clubs‚ varying sailing rules into a common code, which it called the International Racing Rules. At this time, the Americans did their own thing. Later, by common consent and the amalgamating of the North American Yacht Racing Rules with the IRRs, the IYRU became the international forum for all matters racing.

The IYRU operated like most clubs: its decisions were made by committees of which there were few and all concerned, as the name implies, with racing. That was the IYRU’s business and it minded its own business well. As the body responsible for yacht racing, the IYRU dealt with the similarly constituted body responsible for the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IYRU was based in London, in rooms rented from the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Knightsbridge, and had a staff of three in the office plus an international measurer who looked after technical matters for the international classes, including the Olympics. It held an annual conference every November, usually in London.

But then came along the 1984 Olympics.

Before this time, the host nation and/or city got government money to stage the Games, inevitably at a loss. Yacht racing at this time was run by amateur, Corinthian clubs and involved amateur sailors. The yacht racing rules of the time even required that a yacht in a race could be steered only by an amateur. Each nation had its own national body, each varyingly active but most concerned primarily with yacht racing and primarily the yacht racing rules. Each national authority subscribed to IYRU.

The committee organizing the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, in the hope of mitigating the cost of running the Games, had the bright idea of selling-off sponsorship rights to the Games. Coca-Cola bought the main rights; there were other sponsors as well. And the IOC also sold the rights to televise the Games. In the U.S., these went for big bucks.

When the money was totted-up at the end, to everyone’s delight there was a modest, indeed not insubstantial, surplus. The IOC divvied this out between the sports, giving the money to each sport’s affiliated body. The IYRU found itself in funds. But there was a snag. The IOC would give the money only if the affiliated body could speak for all participants in its discipline.

And so, to keep its hands on the Olympic money, the IYRU changed its constitution, unilaterally declaring itself to be “the world governing body for all forms of sailing” and arrogating to itself the right to tell sailors of all sorts around the world what their sport would be and what they could do.

And the rest, as they say…

Editor’s note: For the glass half empty crowd, the headline is born from this 1969 song.

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