Improving future for USA Olympic sailing
Published on January 30th, 2024
The US Olympic Sailing Program, which once led all nations in the medal count, is in free fall. The heyday of the program is so long ago that it is a challenge to connect what worked then to what is failing now. But Robert Hopkins, Jr. can.
Hopkins is one of the very bright people that had his hand in the medal-winning era, and went on to contribute elsewhere in the sport at a very high level. He has since been watching the USA slip from the podium, and following comments about college sailing, he steps forward with some stern advice:
As a former Olympic sailing coach and college sailor who has lived in Spain for the past 30 years, I’m concerned about how far the US team has fallen since the high-water mark of 1984-1992. It’s complicated, but don’t blame college sailing, blame college.
American athletes cannot complete a 4-year degree and campaign for the Olympics simultaneously, even without college sailing. The academic schedule alone makes a campaign impossible.
More so, graduation brings no relief, because the opportunity cost of postponing a career to sail full time is astronomically higher for Americans than for any other country.
College sailing used to be rightly considered a strength of the American approach. Where else could you hone your tactics during hundreds of races per year and learn the team spirit that can make an Olympic campaign successful. All that was necessary was to layer on some boatspeed knowledge – much easier than learning about starts, strategy and tactics.
But today’s Olympic classes have speared off in strange directions. Of the ten events, four are not in sailboats and three are in expensive technical classes, leaving only the ILCAs and mixed 470 with relevance to college sailing.
Fundraising is no longer the test of an athlete’s character that it once was. It’s a grueling specialty best performed by a very few mature sailors with charisma and nameplate recognition, deep bonds in the donator community, and a competitive track record. Vanilla sports marketers literally cost more than they earn. Donors should feel free to contribute to US Sailing or to a regional sailing foundation.
We can win again by selecting an expert executive director who can rebuild youth sailing on-ramps, hire top coaches, and raise funds from our own community – the world’s wealthiest cohort. In fact, that was happening until Executive Director of U.S. Olympic Sailing, Paul Cayard, was cancelled last spring. (Full disclosure: I decided not to renew my US Sailing membership directly thereafter.)
I understand that US Sailing is our national governing body and is formally responsible for the US Olympic Sailing Program. That being true, US Sailing should continue to offer routine back-office support while standing down from a competitive management role.
It should delegate complete autonomy to the Olympic team in the key processes that lead to winning Olympic medals, and for sure, kill the lawsuit.
Paris 2024 Olympic Sailing Program*:
Men’s One Person Dinghy – ILCA 7 (41)
Women’s One Person Dinghy – ILCA 6 (41)
Mixed Two Person Dinghy – 470 (19)
Men’s Skiff – 49er (20)
Women’s Skiff – 49erFX (20)
Men’s Kiteboard – Formula Kite Class (20)
Women’s Kiteboard – Formula Kite Class (20)
Men’s Windsurfing – iQFOiL (24)
Women’s Windsurfing – iQFOiL (24)
Mixed Multihull – Nacra 17 (19)
* Quota per event in parenthesis but does not include Universality Places (2 men, 2 women)
Venue: Marseille, France
Dates: July 28-August 9
• Paris website: https://www.paris2024.org/en/the-olympic-games-paris-2024/
• World Sailing microsite: https://paris2024.sailing.org/