AN OPEN LETTER TO SIR PHILIP CRAVEN
PRESIDENT OF THE INTERNATIONAL PARALYMPIC COMMITTEE
2nd June 2016
Before I start, I should advise you that I consider this letter to be open, and I will be sharing it on social media (including with the Reinstate Sailing Facebook page), and with the media. If you do have the time to respond, I would be very grateful if you could agree to my sharing of your response in an equally open manner.
I am writing to you out of frustration at the actions and behaviour of the leadership team at World Sailing over the past 15 months since the IPC announced last January that sailing would not be included as a Paralympic Sport for Tokyo. Whilst I was frustrated at the decision, I was one of the few people around the world who realised early on that on the basis of the information (or lack thereof) supplied by IFDS, that the decision taken was the right one.
At the time I was a member of the British Sailing Team aiming for Rio, but more realistically Tokyo, and grew increasingly frustrated as IFDS/World Sailing repeated their rhetoric that they were confident of reinstatement, until the news finally came around this time last year that they had acknowledged failure. At that point I decided to exit the team as it became increasingly likely that I would not be selected for Rio.
Throughout those 5 months, the lack of information and realistic situation updates became more and more heart breaking for me. A sport that I started 8 years before had suddenly become very political and I began to lose my love for it. A sport where I felt like I had a real opportunity to succeed had become more of a hobby to me as the goal of a gold medal was taken away. I must make it clear that I don’t blame IPC for any of this at all. I roundly blame IFDS and their dysfunctional leadership.
Over the course of the last year I have been incredibly pessimistic of sailing’s chances of reinstatement for 2024, primarily because of the fact that the majority of the leadership of IFDS are on the World Disabled Sailing committee. How exactly can it be right to expect the leadership that saw the Sport’s spectacular fall from grace, to be able to rescue it from the ashes? How can I trust the people who quite frankly failed in their duties to govern the sport effectively, to be able to put forward a strong case next time round?
It is my opinion that these people do not fully understand the grassroots of the sport – the hundreds (probably thousands) of disabled people who go sailing worldwide, on a regular basis for whatever reason. They don’t seem to understand their motivations for wanting to sail, nor the things that they look for when it comes to boats. Surely, you’ll agree, it is vital for the leadership of any sport to understand these basic points?
I got involved in a wide variety of different sports whilst I grew up including wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, hand-cycling, swimming and boccia. However, my disability (athetoid dystonic cerebral palsy) meant that I could never be completely competitive in any of these. When I tried sailing in 2006, aged 13, I was instantly hooked. Here was a sport that I could compete equally in with my abled-bodied counterparts, and on the basis of some pretty decent racing results, I was quite good! I sailed in whatever boats I could get into.
My favourite boat of all of them was quite easily the Challenger, which is a single person boat that was first conceived by Diana Campbell in the early 1980’s. The adrenaline rush that I get from sailing that boat at high speed, with spray flying everywhere is unlike no other. It is quite easily the easiest boat to rig out of all the more popular boats for disabled people, and one of the cheapest boats too (£7,000 new). It requires little to no infrastructure as it is beach launched, and a wide variety of disabilities are able to sail it, including quadriplegics (see Geoff Holt’s 2007 round Britain sailing challenge). When I left the British Sailing Team last year, I decided that if sailing did get reinstated for 2024 or later, the only way I would contemplate another Paralympic campaign would be if the Challenger was selected as a class for racing.
I feel as if I should offer you some history as to the relationship between the Challenger and IFDS/World Sailing. The Challenger Class Association, and an organisation called the Dan’s Dream Project has been campaigning for the Challenger to be included since 2003. IFDS supported at least 2 world championship events for the class, the last of which occurred in 2008 in Portugal, and attracted 30 sailors from all over the world (including some sailors who would go on to compete in Beijing 2008). The representative from IFDS at that event, Linda Merkle who would then go on to become President, was extremely complimentary of the boat and the people involved in the organisation (including the sailors). Nothing happened. The 8 years since have been pretty much the same story: positive sounds coming out of IFDS, and then nothing happening, or the decision being delayed without any reason.
Then last summer, in a shock move, the Challenger Class Association were invited to Weymouth, UK to allow some emerging nations sailors to have a look at the Challenger and discuss the boat with World Disabled Sailing leadership. There was a distinct lack of information available about the event for the Class reps, but the feedback received from sailors and people involved was generally very positive.
Then… silence. The Class heard nothing else. Imagine our shock and disappointment therefore when World Disabled Sailing announced about a month ago that they would be holding two Paralympic equipment selection trials events in May (the first of which was just a few days later in Italy), and that the Challenger had not been included in the shortlist, the reasons for which were not supplied. Upon pressing World Sailing on social media, they tried to argue that the worldwide distribution of the boat is insufficient, however we know for a fact that the boat has suppliers all over the world. Since explaining that via social media again, World Sailing have suddenly gone quiet and are refusing to respond to us.
It isn’t just the Challenger not being considered that frustrates me. The sailors who were due to race the event directly after the equipment trials in Italy were only informed about the trials the day before via a notice. There was zero warning in advance of their arrival to the venue, and it was very much forced upon them. Furthermore, the event at which the trials occurred was not a grassroots event. It appears as if World Disabled Sailing has made zero effort to consult with the grassroots sailors on what classes should be used. Even then, the current top sailors are incredibly frustrated at the boats that are on the shortlist, and the phrase that I have heard on more than one occasion is “it’s a joke”.
The selection of classes for trial was again done in an extremely non-transparent manner, in fact to the point of (perhaps) biased selection without regard to the wishes of the sailors. I would ask you to understand that disabled athletes are particularly sensitive to being informed what is "best" for them, and the crass disregard for our wishes ranks only to exacerbate an already dire situation. These people are apparently blind to their failures, and the reasons that they have failed us so badly.
During the World Championships that occurred recently in Medemblik, the leadership of World Disabled Sailing tried to make out like it was in fact World Sailing’s fault that no-one was aware. That came from the same person who last year tried to argue that sailing’s deselection was down to IPC’s interpretation of the information provided. It seems that a leopard never changes its spots.
This, to me, all points to one thing: the leadership of World Disabled Sailing are incompetent and do not deserve the chance to even try to secure sailing’s reinstatement. I repeat the call I, and many others made last year – for the troubled leadership to step aside, allow new, young blood to take the sport forward, and to allow the sport to breathe after a stifling few years of the same individuals running the sport into the ground.
As a current charitable trustee and President elect of a 23,000 member Students’ Union, I am looking critically at what we are doing all the time from a governance point of view. I can say with a fair amount of confidence that from the outside, World Disabled Sailing has some huge governance flaws that need rectification, because otherwise those flaws will catch up with it and any progress that is made now will be unsustainable.
Whilst I completely understand that there is very little that IPC can do to force World Sailing and World Disabled Sailing to alter their course and rectify these issues, I urge you to lobby the leadership of World Sailing to take proper charge of the matter, replace the entire committee with new people, and properly consult with the grassroots of the sport prior to making any future decisions.
Until all of these things happen, I believe that the reinstatement of sailing for 2024 is a doomed project that will cause irrevocable damage to the entire sport, and years of frustration and upset for those of us who are truly passionate about the sport and believe in it’s potential as a future Paralympic Sport. I would not be sending this long a letter to you if I didn’t fulfil those criteria – I hope you can understand that.
I appreciate that you must be incredibly busy with Rio looming in a few months, and honestly if you get this far, I appreciate the time that you have taken to read of my frustrations.