Blind Sailing International and a number of sailors have raised concerns about the selection of a match racing event for the Paralympic format proposed by IFDS. It was a difficult decision and one which the IFDS Executive Committee discussed at length, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the various options of both fleet and match racing, seeking the format which would have the highest likelihood of securing an additional discipline for the Paralympic Games.
IPC were specific about what they expected of any additional Paralympic sailing event:
- Equipment types do not proliferate;
- A broad range of disability types are represented in the Paralympic Sailing Competition;
- Events provide elite, high performance racing;
- Total athlete numbers do not increase dramatically.
Consultation began at the 2009 IFDS / BSI Worlds in Rotorua, New Zealand, where an IFDS Sailors Forum was convened to discuss any issues brought up by the sailors and to outline the process for applying for an additional Paralympic discipline. From that meeting, IFDS formed a working party to help develop a Paralympic event strategy. This group included two officialseach from BSI and Homerus along with two sailors. The working party sought out data and information about blind sailing in its existing formats which it brought to the IFDS Executive and then the IFDS Executive developed several options that were presented to IPC for their informal response. Feedback from the IPC supported the idea of a match racing event, so at the 2010 IFDS / Homerus Worlds in Gargnano, Italy, some further options were put before the IFDS Sailors Forum. The feedback from that group was very clear and subsequently enabled IFDS to finalise its proposal to the IPC over the following month.
Mindful of the IPC's stated expectations and taking into account the views of the two blind sailing organisations and the sailors, some of the other factors that shaped the IFDS decision making were:
- IPC is less likely to support events that require sighted or able-bodied athletes. Their focus is on athletes with a disability and the number of athlete places in the Games is very limited.
- The event needs to be held as a single division incorporating a range of vision impairments. To have separate divisions for different vision classifications would require additional medals (i.e. considered an additional discipline) and would raise the number of athletes to an unacceptable level.
- Match racing is an elite discipline, requiring great boat handling, an excellent understanding of the rules combined with strong tactical skills and the capacity for fast decision making etc. The sailor development pathway in the mainstream sport is through fleet racing with a smaller group of highly skilled sailors progressing to match racing. All match racers have been or still are fleet racers and fleet racing provides a great balance of training for match racing
- Blind and vision impaired sailors who do not wish to participate in a match racing discipline still have opportunities to fleet race in the Paralympic Games as part of an integrated crew in the two person and three person keelboat disciplines.
- A three person blind match racing event can and would be held using the same equipment as the three-person keelboat discipline, addressing IPC's concern about the proliferation of equipment.
- Match racing also requires less equipment (i.e. fewer boats) to hold and event and those would be supplied by the organising authority for the Games.
The 2011 IFDS Blind Match Racing International Championships in Perth, Australia were the first opportunity to test the proposed Paralympic blind sailing format. Feedback from officials, coaches, and sailors confirmed it was a very successful event but highlighted a number of issues that are currently being addressed, and changes to the format will be re-tested at future events to improve the quality of the discipline.
• the physical position of the sighted observer in the boat (to be addressed at the next event);
• the role of the observer and the amount of information they can provide (addressed in the final version of the ISAF Appendix CBS);
• difficulty in identifying the leeward mark in stronger breezes;
• the apparent advantage of crews who had a B3 crew member with good residual vision.
The biggest challenge to address is how to fairly include more highly sighted yet classifiable B3 athletes without giving an unfair advantage over crews comprised of only B1 and B2 athletes.. One option is to use the IFDS Three-Person Format Classification (Functional Classification System A126.96.36.199) which excludes a percentage of B3 classified athletes, or to exclude B3 classified athletes altogether. However this would seem counterproductive as it would exclude a significant number of athletes for whom IFDS is trying to provide opportunities. One way to enable all sailors with an IBSA classification to compete on an equal basis may be to have all competitors wear eyeshades or blackout glasses just as is done in the Paralympic sport of Goalball. While this would require the B2 and B3 athletes in particular to train with additional visual restriction and reduce sensory input to some degree, it would provide a 'level playing field' for all teams. Adjustment to this requirement would occur through pre-competition training and would be the same for all teams participating. It is proposed to test this method at an upcoming IFDS blind match racing event and feedback will be sought from all participants and coaches.
IFDS will continue to encourage the development of integrated fleet racing opportunities for blind & vision impaired sailors. At its recent annual meeting, IFDS reviewed its events strategy and resolved that it would aim to authorise one IFDS Blind Sailing World Championship each year, alternating annually between fleet racing and match racing. This is subject to the receipt of proposals for events that meet IFDS event standards and attract broad national representation. Additional events can also be authorised as Level 2 IFDS International Championships. Blind Sailing Organisations and potential host clubs are encouraged to contact IFDS about any event proposals.
To assist event organisers and officials, a Blind Sailing Appendix has been developed for the IFDS Race Management Manual which includes fleet and match racing disciplines. Comments on this document are also invited. The IFDS Race Management Manual and Draft Blind Sailing Appendix are available at www.sailing.org/tools/documents/FINALIFDSRMM20092012241111-%5B11681%5D.pdf
IFDS welcomes feedback from organisations and individuals. This should preferably be before the end of January via Blind Sailing International or Homerus who can correlate a response, or can be made directly to IFDS via email email@example.com