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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting NZ to review selection procedures

The Sports Tribunal last week issued its ruling on the case of Sara Winther (l) and Natalia Kosinska. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
The Sports Tribunal last week issued its ruling on the case of Sara Winther (l) and Natalia Kosinska. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Yachting New Zealand plans to review its selection procedures in the wake of high-level criticism over the handling of its Olympic nominations.

The Sports Tribunal last week issued its ruling on the case of Sara Winther and Natalia Kosinska, who sought to have their non-nominations in the Laser Radial and women's RS:X windsurfer classes for the Rio Olympics overturned. The pair's challenge was unsuccessful but in the Tribunal's full decision, adjudicator Sir Bruce Robertson, the former Chief Justice, levelled heavy criticism at Yachting New Zealand (YNZ), expressing concerns over the inadequacy of communication to both athletes.

Sir Bruce said while he was troubled by YNZ's "lack of consultation, support and communication" it did not meet the high threshold to justify intervention.

"While the selection policy is drafted to provide huge discretion to YNZ, this does not obviate its obligations to abide by the rules of natural justice and to ensure basic fairness in its implementation.

In particular, athletes in contention for nomination should be aware of what information they are being judged by and be given a reasonable opportunity to provide feedback on this," Sir Bruce wrote.

The pair's experiences mirrored that of JP Tobin, who abandoned his Olympic campaign earlier this year following a long-running battle with the national body.

YNZ chief executive David Abercrombie said his organisation was pleased with the outcome of the hearing, in which Sir Bruce found clear foundation for the selectors decisions. He said the "feedback" from Sir Bruce has been taken on board and YNZ will review its practices to ensure it continues to do the best by its athletes.

"We're just going into a new strategic planning period for our high performance programme over the next 4-5 years and we'll take his comments on board - we'd be daft not to - because there are areas we recognise we could do better," said Abercrombie.

However, the suggestion YNZ hasn't supported Winther and Kosinska rankles Abercrombie. He said the pair have received combined assistance to the tune of $400,000 from the national body over the past four years. It's a number he doesn't disclose lightly - individual campaign investment is usually kept tightly under wraps - but fed up with his organisation "being beat up on" he decided to go public with the figure.

"I object to the criticism that we haven't supported these athletes fairly," he said.
"These two athletes have received north of $400,000 in funding, you tell me what other sports get that?"

Winther and Kosinska believe the figure is misleading, and point out the biggest component of that $400,000 was coaching costs to run the respective programmes, which other sailors benefited from. The pair also received $30,000 each Performance Enhancement Grants, Kosinska in 2014 and Winther in 2015, by virtue of their world ranking, but that money came directly from HPSNZ, not YNZ.

Kosinska said the only direct campaign funding she received from YNZ was $61,000 - $56,000 from mid-2013 to September 2014, when she was in the NZL Sailing Team, and a $5000 discretionary grant in 2014.

But the pair's appeal wasn't about the numbers, it was about a perceived lack of opportunity to prove to the selectors that she was capable of medalling. In particular, the decision not to send them to a test event in Rio in 2015, which proved to be the death knell to their campaigns.

Abercrombie said YNZ cannot afford to fund all Olympic aspirants over a full four-year programme.

"We invest quite heavily in the first two years of a campaign, because we want people to qualify the classes. But after that, if you're not demonstrating that you're on track and proving your ability to medal, what we tend to do is target those campaigns that are on track," he said.

"It's not a bottomless pit. Our funding agreement with High Performance Sport is based on performance and results, it's not based on turning up."

In response to criticism over the selectors lack of consultation and communication with the athletes, Abercrombie pointed out communication is a two-way street, and the sailors can seek clarification or feedback from the national body at any point.

Letters obtained by the Herald show Tobin did just that, writing to YNZ on at least three occasions between August 2015 and February 2016 seeking to clarify the Olympic nomination criteria, before abandoning his campaign. Each time he was referred back to the original nomination document.

Tobin penned a final letter in February outlining his frustrations with the lack of clarity in the selection criteria and expressed his reservations that the selectors had the relevant knowledge of the RS:X class.

"I have had zero interaction or communication with any of the YNZ appointed selectors for months, and in some cases years," Tobin wrote.

"The selectors have not taken the time to attend any racing during the same time frame and as a consequence further distance themselves from reaching an informed decision."
In a 29-word response, YNZ chairman Terry Nicholas said he saw no need to alter the policy or selectors.

Tobin pulled the pin on his campaign after failing to get satisfactory answers from Nicholas, taking up a coaching role with Brazil. He did not walk away quietly however, telling the Herald in March he was sick of "battling an organisation that was supposed to be facilitating".

Abercrombie finds Tobin's criticism troubling, insisting YNZ went out of its way to support him.

"I met with Jon-Paul Tobin here in my office and he was under no illusion as to what he had to do to in order to get nominated to the NZOC. Jon-Paul Tobin was also given discretionary funding to get him to the worlds [in 2015] and he gave us a plan of what he wanted to do to qualify for Rio. And he took the discretionary funding, didn't follow the plan and instead took himself off to the [Stand Up Paddleboard] world championships."

For Kosinska, the opportunity to have her say through the Sports Tribunal was in a sense cathartic, but she was left further frustrated when YNZ's selection processes were exposed.

YNZ were unable to provide Aaron Lloyd, the lawyer representing Winther and Kosinska, any minutes from selectors meetings or written documentation discussing either athletes' form over selection period.

"I was pretty shocked. There was no evidence of communication between selectors when they were deciding about Games nominations. There is no written record from their meetings at all. In regards to me from the last 18 months there are three lines of notes from the Olympic Committee meetings [about] my progress," said Kosinska.

"For someone that has qualified the country at the Olympics, is within the top 12 in the world it is unacceptable that they paid my campaign no attention. It was just a joke.

"At least there was acknowledgement that our treatment has been rubbish, [YNZ's] systems were rubbish, and they failed to show due process.

Winther was reluctant to comment on the case while she weighs up her competitive future. She said she has not given up on the idea of competing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

"I'm so unfinished from what's happened. I was sailing really well, and just getting better and better these last six months and it's all coming to a grinding halt," said Winther.
"It's only the physical aspect that will ever stop me, so that's what I'll be considering. The desire is definitely still there."

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