David Leggat on sport

David Leggat is a Herald sport writer

David Leggat: Our sailors suffer as kites bump boards

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The sailing fraternity could argue there is room for both windsurfing and kiteboarding at the Olympics. Photo / APN
The sailing fraternity could argue there is room for both windsurfing and kiteboarding at the Olympics. Photo / APN

It is easy to forget that in the years immediately preceding 1984, all was far from plain sailing when windsurfers were introduced to that year's Olympic Games.

There was a view that windsurfing was the wayward teenage son to the strait-laced parents, in the form of the established Olympic classes - and did it really belong on the Games programme anyway?

That said, it is easy to understand New Zealand's ire at the International Sailing Federation's (ISAF) decision to dump the windsurfers in favour of kite racing for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. After all, seven of New Zealand's 16 Olympic medals have come on the boards, since Bruce Kendall won his bronze medal at Los Angeles 28 years ago.

New Zealand does it well. Ever since Peter Mander and Jack Cropp won their 12m Sharpie class gold at Melbourne 56 years ago, New Zealand have punched hard among the world's best sailing nations.

When it comes to the windsurfers, no other country matches New Zealand's success rate.

Of the 36 Olympic gongs since 1984 (the women began in 1992, with Barbara Kendall's gold medal in Barcelona), Italy come closest to New Zealand's haul of three gold and bronze, and one silver, with four medals. China, Israel, France and the United States have three apiece.

New Zealand's last Olympic sailing medal other than from a windsurfer was 20 years ago, through Lesley Egnot and Jan Shearer's 470 silver, Rod Davis and Don Cowie's second placing in the Star and Craig Monk's bronze in the Finn.

New Zealand do the boards well, there are precious few Olympic sports at which this nation excels by the most exacting standards, and that heightens the frustration felt at the ISAF decision.

The curious side to this decision, taken by the ISAF council in Italy last weekend, is there seemed no sign of clear and present danger for the windsurfers. The expectation was that, at the least, the decision would have been deferred to its annual conference in November.

Yes, the ISAF had flagged the idea and last November an evaluation group was set up to examine the case for the kites versus the boards for Rio. That group recommended to include kiteboards into the ISAF event family, which includes sailing World Cups and world championships. But by 19 votes to 17 - scarcely a ringing endorsement - the council went one, unexpected step further.

From November, in Melbourne, the kites will be on the World Cup programme, along with the other nine Olympic disciplines for Rio.

Last year, Yachting New Zealand suggested kites could be included on the Rio programme as demonstration sports, then, all going well, a place could be found, provided there was sufficient support, on the 2020 card.

ISAF president Goran Petersson hailed the decision as "a new era for sailing".

New Zealand's Olympic-bound representative and former world No 1 Jon-Paul Tobin had another way to describe it.

"I think the first thing is to try and wake the ISAF up and let them know this decision doesn't make any logical sense," Tobin, bronze medallist in the RS:X class at the world champs in Cadiz, Spain in March, said.

Yachting New Zealand has invested significantly into its development programmes, but chief executive David Abercrombie believes there's no point crying about it; better get stuck into the new Olympic class.

The sailing fraternity could argue there is room for both. After all, there's space for no less than five pistol shooting classes in London in July-August.

Right now, kiteboarding may appear more suited to an X-Games type event. However, in three Olympics' time, it may have come to be part of the family, just as windsurfing did.

- NZ Herald

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