If it doesn’t change, sailing “is in danger” of being left out of the Olympics, warns Theresa Zabell, gold medalist in Barcelona and Atlanta

Too expensive and too little audience, a combination that worries the IOC, said the former vice-president of the Spanish Olympic Committee (COE) during an interview with Around the Rings in Madrid.

Theresa Zabell at the Foundation Ecomar headquarters in Madrid / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Theresa Zabell at the Foundation Ecomar headquarters in Madrid / SEBASTIÁN FEST

MADRID - The Olympic Games are changing and will continue to change, and if sailing doesn’t get on that train it is in significant danger. Danger of what? Of ceasing to be part of the Games, of losing its Olympic status. That is, at least, what Spain’s Theresa Zabell, gold medalist in Barcelona 92 and Atlanta 96 in the 470 category, believes.

”I think sailing is in danger. We have to be vigilant,” Zabell said during an interview with Around the Rings at her offices at the Ecomar Foundation in Madrid’s elegant Salamanca neighborhood.

Head of Madrid’s unsuccessful bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, Zabell, at 56, has extensive experience in the Olympic world, not only as an athlete and vice president of the Spanish Olympic Committee (COE), a position she eventually held, but also as a former member of the executive board of the International Sailing Federation, known today as World Sailing.

”I love foils as a concept, they seem to me to be the future. The America’s Cup is a bit like Formula 1, that technological changes are transferred to ordinary cars. But my opinion is that Olympic sailing is having too many changes in too little time,” warned the Spaniard.

”When in every edition of the Games you are changing something, many people and many countries can’t keep up with the pace, and that’s a problem. When you don’t know very well what the rules of the game are, it’s very difficult to play. After Tokyo you have to dismantle what has been done and start something new, and that leaves a lot of people by the wayside”.

Zabell gave the example of Argentina’s Santiago Lange, gold medalist in the Nacra at Rio 2016. “For Santi Lange, a great friend, it’s difficult to go from a boat without foils to a boat with foils. And in mixed crews, many of the girls who are sailing Nacra I know are having serious injuries, some of them chronic.”

”There’s a boat and you say, ‘ah, well, let a boy and a girl sail.’ And no, you have to see if that boat is suitable for a woman.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Sailing - Men's 49er - Opening Series - Enoshima Yacht Harbour - Tokyo, Japan - July 27, 2021. Competitors in action. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File photo       SEARCH "BEST OF THE TOKYO OLYMPICS" FOR ALL PICTURES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Sailing - Men's 49er - Opening Series - Enoshima Yacht Harbour - Tokyo, Japan - July 27, 2021. Competitors in action. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File photo SEARCH "BEST OF THE TOKYO OLYMPICS" FOR ALL PICTURES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.

According to Zabell, sailing is going too far in embracing the mixed-events trend that was one of the big hallmarks of Tokyo 2020.

”The 470 is the only boat that is equal for men and women, and in the next Games it’s going to be mixed. Within the class and the athletes are not very happy about that. The 470 was already perfect for men and women. To impose that it has to be a man or a woman...”.

What would Zabell do if she had a voice and influence within World Sailing again today?

”Adapt the sport to what the International Olympic Committee wants,” the Spaniard said without hesitation.

And what does that mean? “Sailing is the most expensive sport to organize and the one with the smallest audience in the Olympic Games. Sailing has had instructions for years, I know because I was still there, from the IOC, so that the sport is not so expensive to organize and they work on the issue of audiences”.

Why is sailing so expensive? “A lot of times it’s a sub-venue, you have to build a harbor, it’s quite a few people involved in the organization.”

But there’s no reason for it to stay that way, she added.

“Now all the classes that sail don’t need a macro port. They can almost, almost get off a beach. Building a big harbor is maybe something the city wants to do, but it’s not essential. Years ago there was the soling and the star, which are keelboats and need a harbor to get out. That was one of the reasons they got out of the program, to make the races cheaper and not need the moorings. None of the boats racing now need moorings.”

Sailing straight off a beach brings back memories of surfing, which made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, at Tsurigasaki Beach.

“You just need somewhere to store the boats and house the coaches and organization.”

”In addition to the excessive cost, Zabell pressed Around the Rings on the problem of television viewership, which she claimed is the lowest of any sport at the Games.

“The regattas are shorter now, but a lot of people still don’t understand them. When you want someone to understand your sport you have to start by explaining. You go to Australia or New Zealand and people understand what is going on. In Spain they don’t, they’re just boats floating around.”

”And there are a lot of things you can do on television. But, to start with, sailing in Spain is seen once every four years. To get to the final in sailing there are 10 or 11 regattas that can be used to tell the story. In Spain, in the news it comes out that a soccer team has trained, and that’s not news.”

The danger of non-Olympic sailing, she concludes, is real. “It is in danger. It has the advantage of being a sport with a very long tradition, but with all the changes in the sports program today, we have to be attentive. And to get some sports in, you have to take some sports out.”

Zabell suggests “swift action” to remove sailing from this danger.

“When I was on the council, there were already calls of attention from the IOC. A long, 24-hour regatta was planned for Paris. And a short time ago the IOC said no way. People want to see short sports, with a kid climbing a wall in ten seconds, and you want 24 hours of a competition that is followed from a helicopter?”

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