Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Olympic-Grade Folly (or the Cluster$@#&* that is ISAF...)

So this funny thing happened on the way to Rio...

A couple years ago, kiteracing became organized to the point where it was starting to look like a real contender for a berth in the Olympics. And boy did those kiteracers lobby. In fact, they did a great job putting on events that showcased the sport, all while the performance level of what they were doing on the course was getting downright amazing.

And then this year, ISAF gave them the nod - but did so at the expense of windsurfing. The decision making process was hosed in so many ways (practice your google-fu if you're not familiar with the whole sordid tale - it's quite entertaining in a watching-a-train-wreck-sort-of-way...). Nothing new under the sun, there - just remember how equipment selection for the windsurfing classes has gone down ever since the 84 Games (Ostermann Windglider, anyone? RS:X? I rest my case...). And then, they reversed themselves, reinstating windsurfing (good decision) and dropping kiting (bad decision). ISAF has always prioritized politics over the good of the sport or the good of the athletes in this, so why should that be different now?

Because you'd think these guys (it's mostly guys on the committees, actually, but that's a different story) would be smarter than that. Because we all know that if the goal is to make the Olympics a showcase for how exciting sailing can be, Finns and Lasers won't do the job. When windsurfing got in, it was young, in flux, exciting, sexy. The cool new thing. A beach sport in terms of cost and accessibility, co-opted by yachting as a ticket to stay relevant. When they moved kiting into the line-up, it was the same reasoning.

And the reasoning is sound - you need something cool and exciting and fast that has the potential to make for good TV to keep sailing in the Games. And so ISAF, in their infinite wisdom, decided that they needed a token board sport. Yes, kiteracing as it's currently practiced is WAY more exciting for a broad TV audience than RS:X racing. But I'd argue that high-performance windsurfing, using box rule classes with a strict 8-knot wind minimum (either slalom or Formula) is just as exciting. And they're both way more awesome than above-mentioned Finns and Lasers, or 470's.

So why not get both kites and windsurfers into the Games and sacrifice the Finn, for example? Most of the old guys on the committees used to be Finn sailors, and the boards are not really considered sailing classes by the yachting establishment. Which is probably why they hosed Olympic windsurfing so badly in the first place.

Case in point - the athlete in the picture above is Nikola Girke, who placed 10th in London. An incredible athlete in her third Games (470 in 04, RS:X in 08 and 12), she had podium-level speed and angle in the pre-Games events in the same waters, the same conditions, against the same competitors when using her own gear just like those competitors. In the Games, due to bad equipment (you can't bring your own to keep it "fair" in this strict OD class - but the quality control sucks so there's huge luck of the draw element) she had to overcome a huge handicap to make it into the medals race and 10th overall.

So that's ISAF in a nutshell for you - that's how these clowns run an Olympic regatta. Imagine, for a moment, Usain Bolt being told he can't use his own shoes. Or Lindsey Vonn being issued supposedly OD skis just to find out that hers are a bit off on flex. Pretty unimaginable, eh? You could look at this and argue that these idiots managed to ruin one of the coolest sports in the known universe. So perhaps the kiters are better off - who knows what they would have had to acquiesce to in ISAF's quest to turn them into proper sailors?

Why does this all have me so pissed off? Well for one, ISAF is jerking around the athletes. Both windsurfing and kiteracing are not big dollar sports. These guys and gals devote tremendous life energy to it. And are then getting used as pawns by a bunch of clowns in blue blazers. And in the process, they've managed to pit windsurf and kite racers against each other, too.

The campaign to get windsurfing back into the Games pointed out a lot of valid weak points for kiteracing as a viable class (no real path for youth other than through other boats or boards - you just don't hook your 6-year-old up to a traction kite...; too little woment's participation; some logistical issues). The kiters can learn from that and grow their sport - as they've been doing for a while. Don't kid yourself - kiteracing is cool, and it's here to stay.

The kiters, in the meantime, pointed out some rather attractive elements of their class (growth, still on the steep part of the learning curve and getting faster every season, attractive to sponsors and spectators), as well as some (well known) weak spots for RS:X.

In the real world, outside of ISAF's screwed up world of politics, the two sports are learning from each other and pushing each other forward. The kiteracers took a lot of stuff that was developed in Formula and slalom windsurfing and adapted it to make their kit faster. Windsurfers are learning from the kiters (hey, A2 just set a new record above 50 knots and looked a lot smoother and in control - so we're still seeing progress there, for example even though the kiters jumped ahead in that race). And guys like Dorian and Zac were only weeks into their kiting careers when they showed up at the kite worlds after winning and placing 10th in the RS:X in London and then placed mid fleet. Clearly, some of those skills must transfer.

There's been enough windsurfers vs. kiters BS. Both sports are way to cool to let themselves be ruined by ISAF idiocy. I don't know if there's a path into the Games outside of ISAF. Maybe not. The irony in all this would be that the board classes can keep ISAF relevant, but only if ISAF can resist the urge to be complete idiots about it. Too bad that seems to be so hard to accomplish...

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