An open letter to Canadian Sailors

An open letter to Canadian Sailors

Monday June 27, 2016 - Kingston, ON

Sail Canada - Olympic Selection and Future Direction

As we prepare to send members of the Canadian Sailing Team to Rio, I take this opportunity to provide an update on Sail Canada’s Olympic Selection Process and more generally, the future direction of our sport in Canada. We’ve appreciated hearing from those who are passionate about our country’s high performance sailing. With any change comes interest, concern and higher engagement.

To understand the selection process, it’s helpful to broaden the context to the Beijing and London Olympics. The results for Canadian Sailors and subsequent concern about lack of performance and downward trend at the Games called for action. There was significant sentiment expressed by our sailing community that Sail Canada (then CYA) needed to “up our game” and improve our Olympic performances. This was reinforced by the directives and funding support models coming from Sport Canada through Own the Podium (OTP). As a result, we developed ‘Vision 2020’ in consultation with our stakeholders across the country. This plan was led by the Athlete Development Committee (ADC) and our National Team coaches. The focus of the program was towards performance over participation. This was to address the concern that we had become a nation of sailors who were more focused on getting to the Games than actually performing at them. With much of the senior National Team retiring after 2012, Vision 2020 was established to redirect the culture of the national team to one of effort and pride in “wearing the jersey” and the success that represented. With limited resources, we consolidated efforts around select ‘supported’ classes in which we could establish a world-class daily training environment. Training was centred on training groups with the critical mass to elevate performance, and employed greater coaching resources including a minimum 200 coached days on the water, in an effort to give us the best chance for improved performance in RIO 2016 and medal success by 2020. The Laser, Laser Radial, 49er and 49er FX were the classes chosen to lead the way. And we all understood that there was no “silver bullet”; no quick solution. Other than under exceptional circumstances, changing direction and priority in any organization requires focus and support over an extended period of time.

Prior to this quadrennial, Olympic qualification was a relatively high bar which Canada often did not meet in all classes. Changes in philosophy and the approach to qualification emerged from the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) desire to see all continents and a greater breadth of nations represented, especially developing nations. World Sailing (then ISAF) thus moved to a model that included regional qualifiers in each continent. This move was made in consultation with the National Federations and was designed to ensure participation from developing nations and allow for better gender representation. With North America only represented by Canada and the United States in many classes, these changes had the unintended effect of enabling Canada to qualify in 9 of 10 classes with a few of them merely by virtue of registering for the Miami World Cup regatta.

The ADC developed Selection Criteria for the Games was published in April 2015 and communicated and clarified to the teams on multiple occasions. The intent of the criteria, given the push from Sail Canada’s stakeholders for excellence at the Games, was to ensure that the team Sail Canada sends to RIO and future Games is one that can compete with the field. In making this determination, the ADC looked at evidence of results analyzed against the competitors at those events and the Olympic sailors competing from the other nations. As determined by the Own the Podium model, the focus and priorities both in funding and coaching resources was given to the athletes who are tracking towards the greatest potential results at the games. The direction from the ADC, the Coaches, supported by the board and backed by OTP is one of performance over participation. Additionally, the ADC and coaches are committed a long-term athlete development model that places developing athletes at events that are appropriate to their stage of development. Some of the sailors who qualified the country for RIO in Miami, while they are terrific athletes with great promise, are at a stage of development quantifiably below that of the Olympic fleets.

Sail Canada is excited and confident in the team going to RIO. There have been strong performances from the 6 classes (comprised of 4 women & 5 men) in recent events. We are extremely proud of the progress these athletes continue to make and the relentless work ethic behind it, and there is great potential for podium success. The Paralympic team is also showing great promise and between the two events in RIO medals are a very real goal.

In recent weeks, there have been four athlete appeals brought before the Sail Canada Board, one of which was allowed, three were denied and two were denied again at the SDRCC (Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada). The latter was a legal proceeding; Sail Canada engaged legal counsel familiar with the process, as did the athletes involved. And all deliberations were based on an objective process and set of criteria that has been known, and in place, for some time.

Sail Canada is continuing to pursue coaching accreditations with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) for RIO to ensure that the team has the maximum support possible for the full period of the games from August 6th to 22nd. We currently have 5 accreditations confirmed for on the water coaches with the potential for a couple more Training Venue Pass (TVP) accreditations restricted to supporting roles such as meteorology. Additionally, the COC have appointed Sail Canada Communications Manager as a member of the COC mission team in the role of press attaché. In a transition period as we search for a new CEO, I have been offered a guest accreditation as President of our organization. This spot is unrelated to the sport allocations and is for a 5 day period late in the games (Aug 14th-18th). I will take this opportunity to meet with High Performance Directors and Leaders from other sailing National authorities and World Sailing representatives. It is often said that you cannot understand the Olympic Games unless you have been there to see it. With the amount of focus on this area of our sport from Sail Canada stakeholders, the perspective is an important one.

Future Direction:

As Sail Canada moves forward and beyond RIO2016 we are in change mode. We are committed to continuous improvement. We are actively searching for a new CEO and a first-ever dedicated High Performance Director. We are enacting change based on a cross-Canada performance review, an audit, conducted in partnership with Own the Podium (OTP) which calls for a stronger system with structure, measurement and accountability. The results of this review were shared broadly at time of their full adoption by the Board. (Link to HP Report)

We are focusing on the complete training and development system of our sailors from Opti to Olympics. Going forward, an athlete-centric, Sail Canada led system, supported by coaches and together with our partner clubs and provincial associations will be delivered as a National Program. A focus on skill development, skill execution and coach enhancement will give us the right tools and metrics to achieve success on a more consistent basis. Olympic selection will be revisited with input from stakeholders. These actions will help to earn more funding and more support from Sport Canada, COC and OTP. To support this effort we are formalizing a fundraising effort, sponsorship programs and have set goals around growth of our existing programs like CANSail. We encourage input and feedback at all points along the way. Please do not hesitate to reach out to staff or volunteers to see how your contributions and perspective can be shared.

We are one organization with our clubs and provincial associations focused on sailor development at all levels. Working together, we can create a culture of excellence.

Todd Irving
President, Sail Canada

In conjunction with Canadian Olympic Committee, the official Olympic Sailing team announcement is scheduled for July 4th, 2016. The Paralympic team announcement is scheduled for July 18th, 2016. 

As a result of sharing the above letter, we’ve received some questions. Hopefully the following helps to further clarify the facts and correct any misinformation.

Q: If an athlete or team has qualified for the Games, do they have the right to that spot?

A: This is one of those questions that is based on a misunderstanding of the Qualification and Selection process. Even if an athlete or team qualifies the country for a spot in the Games for their respective class(es), as per the World Sailing Criteria, the athletes must meet the National Sport Federation's Selection Criteria as well. World Sailing Olympic Qualification Criteria may be found here.

Q: Is sailing the only sport setting a higher standard for their athletes than the international (World Sailing) one?

A: Sailing is not, in fact, the only Canadian summer sport with higher selection criteria than its International Federation (World Sailing). Athletics and Swimming, although unlike sailing they have fixed Olympic qualifying times, have also set higher standards; they will also not be sending athletes that failed to meet their specified internal criteria. Other sports, like Rowing, opted not to qualify in some disciplines (Men's 8) as they are also focusing on improved podium potential.

Q: Why was it important to set standards in 2016?

A: There was a very significant change in the way countries qualify for the Olympics in 2016 with the addition of continental spots for this quadrennial. While these spots were intended to broaden participation, especially among developing countries, the dominant position of Canada and the US in North American sailing meant that Canada was by far the largest beneficiary of this system worldwide, receiving 6 continental spots out of a possible 10. Next down the list were Chile and Singapore at 4 and the USA at 3. In two classes (Women’s RSX and Women’s 470) Canada qualified without the qualifying team/athlete having to sail a single race. The bar was not raised at all from 2012, all our criteria did was to stop it from being dramatically lowered.

Q: Why is the focus on performance so important? Is this all about funding?

A: Sail Canada is ranked 28th out of the summer sports in Canada and has lost significant funding from Own the Podium due to our lack of recent high performance success. Better results, especially medals, means more funding. We have plans to diversify our sources of funds through increased corporate sponsorship and private donations. However, raising money through these channels is also made easier by podium success. Performance is also a very important consideration with respect to individual athlete development. Sending athletes who are not at the right stage of development to be prepared to compete at the games. It should be noted that the Canadian Olympic Committee covers the cost of athletes attending the Olympic Games but those costs are not the only costs. Sail Canada must ensure that the Human Resources it provides at the Games (mainly coaches) aren’t over-taxed and can provide the support to our athletes to ensure successful performances. This will lead to greater government and other funding in the future.

Q: Are any other countries in the same position as Canada in that they are not sending teams that qualified based on World Sailing standards?

A: Yes. While no country was nearly as impacted by continental qualification as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Germany and Croatia have all given up allocations in certain events.

Q: What would be the downside of Canada sending all athletes to the Games?

A: For Sail Canada to send a full team for each of the 10 classes to the Games, when several of the teams will be predictably* at the back of the field (*statistically based on past results) will have three effects: 1. it will spread resources over more teams, impacting our top performing teams; 2. the long-term effect of having a participation-based program versus a performance-based one will diminish the aspirational value of the Olympic team; and, 3. critically, in the opinion of our coaches and the Athlete Development Committee, the younger sailors that we are not sending at the stage of their development to benefit from the Games. The simple message is that we believe sailors going to the Olympics, as with any regatta, should be at the right stage of development to compete in and benefit from it.

Q: Is the criteria that has been developed and being followed considered objective?

A: The trials criteria for Rio was made up of five tiers ranging from “demonstrated podium potential” to “ability to perform at the Rio Olympics”. Everything was entirely quantitative with the only room for interpretation being in the fifth tier with the word "perform”. In every case the ADC interpreted “perform” as being able to compete within the main body of the fleet, and applied that consistently. It is a primary tenet of all our programs that sailors should compete at the right events for their stage of development. For example there has been a performance standard for sailors we send to the youth worlds for well over a decade - and it is exactly the same principle we applied to Olympic qualification.The teams that qualified and were selected met quantitative, objective performance standards. The selection standards did rely on an expert Committee composed of former Olympians who in consultation with coaches have the authority to exercise their discretion. This is a widely accepted practice within the sport community and the discretionary element of our selection criteria and exercise of that discretion has been upheld by an independent Arbitrator with the Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada so that one can be assured that the criteria and its application was in keeping with Canadian legal principles of procedural fairness and natural justice which we as Canadians can be proud.

Q: Why was it important to set standards in 2016?

A: There was a very significant change in the way countries qualify for the Olympics in 2016 with the addition of continental spots for this quadrennial. While these spots were intended to broaden participation, especially among developing countries, the dominant position of Canada and the US in North American sailing meant that Canada was by far the largest beneficiary of this system worldwide, receiving 6 continental spots out of a possible 10. Next down the list were Chile and Singapore at 4 and the USA at 3. In two classes (Women’s RSX and Women’s 470) Canada qualified without the qualifying team/athlete having to sail a single race. The bar was not raised at all from 2012, all our criteria did was to stop it from being dramatically lowered.

Q: Is the criteria too restrictive?

A: The five tiers of selection criteria were set out to establish a way of comparing different Canadian athletes within each class and to ensure that the athletes were able to be competitive within the Olympic field. Following the results of LONDON 2012, Sail Canada sought and received significant input from our stakeholders. It was made clear that there was no desire for us to have sailors competing in the back of the fleet or out-paced by the fleet throughout the regatta. Due to the change in the World Sailing allocation of qualifying spots through potentially low calibre regional qualification standards, this became a distinct possibility for RIO2016. It was therefore necessary to take into consideration the overall calibre of athletes in some classes for which an Olympic spot was awarded at these regional events, rather than simply accept that making the International standard is a mark of readiness for Olympic competition.

Q: The Criteria was set late in the quad - was this fair to the athletes?

A: The Athletes sign an agreement with Sail Canada every year which details many aspects of the National Team program, one of which commits to a minimum of six months' notice for qualification criteria for major games such as the Olympics. The athletes had 14 months' notice and were well aware of the criteria prior to sailing in the nomination events. This was approximately the same timing as for past Olympics.

Q: Why give up Canada's spots if it means that athletes from other countries with weaker performance will go instead? For example, it’s been said that Canada's allocation in the Women's RSX went to a sailor from Singapore who has not even sailed in a World Cup event.

A: While this did not factor at all into our decision-making, as it turns out, the team awarded the allocation often has a stronger record. This is because the "next in line" athletes are selected on world championship results which tends to be a considerably higher bar than the Continental qualifier. As for the Singapore athlete, she was selected by Singapore based on their "Rising Star" criteria. She has a much stronger track record than the Canadian athlete, having finished 27th at the 2016 world championship, 2nd at the Melbourne World Cup and 5th at the 2011 Youth Worlds.

Q: Some might suggest that by “raising the bar", we might have raised it too high. Are there teams that failed to qualify for Rio that would have met the qualification standards that applied in previous Games?

A: If World Sailing had been using the system from London and the previous two decades, Canada would have qualified in 6 classes. Based on their results, none of the teams that we are not sending would have been sent to previous Games.

Q: Did Sail Canada subjectively select sailors for the 2015 Pan Am Games?

A: The Pan Am Games criteria was strictly performance based. The top placing athlete at the designated class qualifier was awarded the Pan Am Games spot in every case, and no other restrictions were imposed on eligibility. For example, Nikola Girke placed 9th overall and was the top Canadian at the RSX qualifier – 2015 Miami Midwinters. The other two Canadian female RSX sailors who competed in that event were Laurance Bonneau-Charland and Olivia Mew who finished 14th and 15th respectively. Results.