Like many in the US, I am scratching my head wondering how the US sailors could have done so badly in The Olympics. It was tragic to see a sailor of Anna Tunnicliffe's caliber, in tears after being knocked out in the Quarter Final of the Match Racing.
The leadership of US Sailing announced that a review into went wrong will be immediately undertaken. In retrospect it should not have been a surprise. Expectations for medals did not seem especially high – a few “maybe in with a chance” at best. Knowing how strong the Brits, Australians and Kiwis were, in addition to some other individual superstars, the US had an outside chance of winning anything much.
For a country that has such a great sailing heritage this is unacceptable. The review is long overdue. There are dozens of different reasons why the US is failing in Olympic sailing. You only need to look at Team GB to see that they are in a different league.
This excellent article in the Guardian explains how Team GB went from winning two silver medals in 1996 to dominating the medals in Beijing and winning 5 medals in London. I suspect Team GB expected better. In fact, had three medal races gone better, three of the silvers would have been gold.
If you go back twenty years, UK sailing looked like US sailing now – a third-tier sport ran in a well-intentioned but amateur way on a shoe-string budget. Expectations were low and results met those expectations.
The watershed event was the creation of the UK Lottery and a massive jump in funding. According to the BBC, Team GB Sailing received close to $30 million for London 2012 and can expect the same for Rio. In addition, Team GB has a major sponsor in Skandia (the finance house) and five additional sponsors plus a fleet of “official suppliers”. By comparison, the US Olympic Team receives $0 in government funding. While US Sailing has a longer list of sponsors, few of them have the clout and deep pockets of Team GB's sponsors. US Sailing starts at a major disadvantage in terms of funding.
It's a virtous cycle. As Team GB does well, it maintains its Lottery funding and attracts more outside cash. If Team GB had not delivered in sailing, the money would have evaporated.
But it’s not all about money. Team GB has an extraordinarily sophisticated system, designed to build a sustainable pipeline of medal winners. The funding supports a squad of 70 full-time sailors organized into three sections – the development squad for younger sailors just finding their feet, the transitional squad and, finally, the performance squad who compete for Gold.
One of the many benefits of a big squad is that they are always practicing competitively. Imagine what it’s like to be a young sailor who sails against the likes of Big Ben on a regular basis. The sailors are held to a high standard and their performance is evaluated every three months. If they are not up to it, they are dropped which sounds ruthlessly un-British.
This team is supported by a small army of coaches, medics, physios, nutritionists, psychologists, managers, etc. These guys manage the details with extraordinary care to ensure that their athletes are ready to win. They even have a falcon to keep the nasty seagulls away at night that might prevent the salty heroes from having a good night’s kip.
Oh, and lets not forget, the excellent UK Sailing center in Weymouth. Clearly something the US is desparately lacking.
I could go on but you have the gist of it. US Sailing needs a massive injection of cash that wil fnd the creation of a system designed to get the US Team winning.
Most importantly US Sailing needs a bigger and better long-term vision, greater ambition and a plan to deliver on this.
There a million reasons why this can't be done but the US is a country that overcomes obstacles and delivers beyond expectations in so many fields. It's about time, this happens in sailing.