Being prepared for the protest room

Published on April 13th, 2022

Bill O’Hara has been involved in every Olympic Games since Los Angeles 1984. He raced for Ireland in the Finn singlehander at the 1984 and 1988 Games before working in various capacities as coach or team leader for Ireland or sitting on the international jury at the Games.

Over the past 10 years he has shifted to becoming a rules adviser for various national teams, and for the Hempel World Cup Series at the 51 Trofeo Princesa Sofía Mallorca (April 4-9) in Spain, he was working in that role for the Irish and Danish teams.

“The biggest problem is the sailors don’t get enough practice in the protest room,” noted O’Hara. “And then it usually only comes up whenever it’s a critical thing at a major event when things really matter. Most of the time people let an incident go on a non-critical day, which means they’re not well prepared for the times when it really matters.

“Mostly on the water it’s a live-and-let-live culture. You tend to see very few protests most of the time, until you reach the day when it’s trying to make it into a Gold fleet, or at the Olympic Games where there’s so much on the line. Then everything changes dramatically at those critical moments and the protests begin.”

O’Hara’s job with his sailors is to make sure they understand the rules well enough to stay away from the protest room. But if they do find themselves heading for the room, to understand how best to present their case. The nightmare scenario for him would be, as rules adviser for two rival teams, to have a protest between a Danish and an Irish sailor.

“We’ve talked through that scenario, should it happen, so hopefully we’ll know how to play that if it does work out that way.”

The iQFOiL windsurfers and the Formula Kiteboards bring a new set of scenarios to the protest room. “Sometimes the kite lines get tangled up and that’s the end of the race for both people,” with O’Hara adding that most of his peers have never raced on a foiling kiteboard at 30 knots, and probably never will.

“It’s up to the athletes to explain to us how their racing works and what are the typical situations that come up. The more we see, the more we’ll understand, and the better decisions we’ll be able to make for resolving protests in these new events.”

As for apathy to protest, O’Hara sees little way around the problem. “All the grand prix events like SailGP or the America’s Cup have on-the-water umpires so all the decisions are made there and then. It doesn’t mean they get all the decisions right, but at least it means you don’t have to take the problem off the water.

“But those events are only dealing with a few boats. With 40, 50 or more boats in multiple fleets at an Olympic regatta, unfortunately it’s just not possible to have umpiring on the water. We’re in a self-policing sport and that puts the onus on the sailors to understand the process, and that’s what I’m here for, to help them navigate the rules.”

The protest room is never going to be a place where a sailor wants to spend more time than absolutely necessary. But as O’Hara says, better to get your practice in early so that you’re fully prepared for the protest that could determine the outcome of your Olympic career.

Source: Trofeo Princesa Sofía

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