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.
Although I now carry a US passport and make my home in bucolic New Jersey, I am British through and through. Above all, I am Londoner. I was born in Paddington, raised in Chelsea, schooled in South Ken and lived in various parts of London till I was 25.
There was no way, I was missing the Games in London, tickets or no tickets. In fact, thank to my mum I did quite well. We saw some of the Women's Marathon swim in Hyde Park. We watched the Women's and Men's 470 Medal round at the Nothe in Weymouth on Friday. Yesterday, we were among the French and Swedes for the Handball Final at the Olympic Park - Allez Les Bleus (OK I am a little bit French too).
When London won the bid, I wasn't too sure what to expect. I heard about the plans. Impressed but skeptical that things were on track. Shared the concerns about traffic, security and general organization. But I HAD to be there.
To say, that my expectations were exceeded, is beyond an understatement. I am blown away by what London achieved. This is not just hometown everything just worked. No everything just worked BRILLIANTLY.
Despite the threats of long waits at customs, we were through Heathrow in less than an hour. Traffic. What Traffic? Everyone cleared out of London. There were times when there were so few cars on the road, you could have filmed a post-apocalyptic movie in London. And transport? Getting to and from the venues was a doddle.
The weather was wonderful. We got here on the middle Sunday and have had no rain all week. Mostly just bright sunshine and pleasant temperatures.
There are three things that will make it one of the greatest memories of my life.
The first was the volunteers. Seventy thousand ordinary people (mostly but not all Brits) gave up weeks of their free time to do whatever needed to be done. Quarter of a million had applied. Almost everywhere you went in London, there was a smiling face in a purple shirt and khakis ready to help. They helped to make London into a genuinely friendly place. Not plastic, smiley, Disney, smiley. Not Cor-blimey-lawks-lummy Cheeky Cockney friendly. Just genuine, humble, "Can I help" friendly. It made one of the largest and often intimidating cities into the world into the World's largest small town.
Next was the way, LOCOG used London. Beach Volleyball at Horse Guards? Utterly brilliant. The sailing venue was perfect. A short, steep hill, overlooking a bay where you could see all the action. The Olympic Park does have somewhat of temporary feel to it but it's impressive. More importantly, I feel LOCOG can genuinely deliver on the rejuvenation story. As our train wound its way through the poorer parts of London yesterday, it was easy to see the positive impact it is having on the area. I hope it's sustainable.
Last but not least was the accomplishment of Team GB. I watched the first week in the US. As proud as I am of the US accomplishments, the NBC coverage lived up to its reputation of being overly US-centric. I can't blame NBC for focusing on US athletes but it does so at the expense of larger stories. But I digress.
I am unabashedly, patriotic about Great Britain and what Team GB achieved was incredible. The way the UK has directed lottery money into sports has been extraordinarily effective. The medal tally was something that would have exceeded anyone's wildest dreams twenty years ago. As a child, I remember everyone getting excited about a Silver or Bronze. Now people have greater expectations. In my view, that's positive.
The numbers are great but the stories are what made it. Big Ben getting angry and getting even. Kath Grainger finally getting her gold. The look on the women’s lightweight scullers face when they won. The look of sheer joy on Mo Farrah's face. The Ginge. Jessica. The cyclists. The Tae Kwondo leap for joy. The boxers. The kayakers. The list goes on.
Although it’s in absentia, I could not be prouder to be Londoner.