David Owen ©ITG

A bitter Presidential election is under way at sailing’s governing body, with incumbent Kim Andersen under challenge from three rivals.

There was a time not so long ago when International Federation (IF) bosses seemed as secure in their jobs as Santa Claus or the Man in the Moon.

Those days are gone, certainly when it comes to World Sailing.

As you read this, the governing body’s Member National Authorities (MNAs) are voting in a Presidential election that sees incumbent Kim Andersen from Denmark battling for his post against no fewer than three opponents.

This comes just four years after the Dane unseated Italy’s Carlo Croce in a dramatic election by 52 votes to 46.

This made him, as an insidethegames colleague put it in 2017, "the first candidate to unseat an incumbent in the organisation’s 110-year history."

With World Sailing’s fragile finances left exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, I have detected a feeling that we may not have to wait quite as long for the second.

The candidate with the wind in his sails at present appears to be Gerardo Seeliger, a 73-year-old Spaniard who competed against Jacques Rogge, the former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, in the Finn class at the 1972 Olympics in West Germany.

Seeliger is an admirer of another former IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, a master politician whom he mentions a number of times during a relatively short conversation. 

When I ask him how the governing body of a sport with so many seriously wealthy enthusiasts can be so stretched financially – the 2019 accounts showed a deficit of just over £2.5 million ($3.2 million/€2.75 million) and net assets at the end of the year down to just £1.84 million ($2.4 million/€2 million) - he is blunt.

"It is impossible to understand," he says. "It is very poorly run. I think World Sailing has done a very poor job in promoting sailing in a commercial or interesting way."

The World Sailing Presidency candidates - top left Kim Andersen, top right Quanhai Li, bottom left Scott Perry, bottom right Gerardo Seeliger ©ITG
The World Sailing Presidency candidates - top left Kim Andersen, top right Quanhai Li, bottom left Scott Perry, bottom right Gerardo Seeliger ©ITG

One aspect of his platform, as summarised on the World Sailing website, perplexes me, however. He wants to "reduce operating expenses, in particular current office costs" and "return to Southampton or nearby or one of five other free or low-cost options being offered today."

Yet those 2019 accounts show that the organisation had future payments under "non-cancellable" operating leases in respect of land and buildings which amounted to £2.67 million ($3.4 million/€2.94 million) at the end of December. That being so, wouldn’t deserting London be a false economy?

Negotiations on this score are, it seems, ongoing. He now tells me his idea is to leave something in London, but to shift elements of the body’s operations, for example development, elsewhere.

"I am negotiating with Oman," he tells me. This strikes me as interesting, not least because David Graham, World Sailing’s recently-installed chief executive, did an 11 year stint working with Oman Sail, an initiative, as we reported, that "aimed to rekindle Oman’s maritime heritage and promote the country through sailing."

One aspect of Seeliger’s candidacy which might be deemed a disadvantage, meanwhile, is simply his age, which renders him too old to become an IOC member under current rules.

With pressures rising for a radical reshaping of the Olympic sports programme, even if they have been temporarily pushed down the agenda by COVID-19, some in the sport might see the value of World Sailing’s President being inside the IOC tent, as in the days when Finland’s Peter Tallberg was one of the most respected of all IOC members.

COVID-19 is also responsible for making this a virtual election, adding to the uncertainty of what looks set to be an extremely tight contest.

With the first round set to last until October 16, the initial dog-fight will be to get into a highly probable run-off involving the top two candidates. This will follow, if needed, between October 20 and 23.

World Sailing employs a curious system of nominations which appears to offer certain insights into what might happen.

The main takeaway from this that has surfaced so far is that Andersen received fewer nominations – 23 – than any of his rivals. They were almost neck-and-neck, with Seeliger securing 36 against 35 for both Scott Perry, an urbane contemporary of the Spaniard from Uruguay, and Quanhai Li, the 58-year-old director-general of China’s National Olympic Sports Centre.

This outcome warrants closer analysis, however, since, as I understand it, MNAs were at liberty to nominate as many or as few of the candidates as they wanted.

Eight MNAs, indeed, saw fit to nominate the full quartet. This brought to mind an exchange involving the former Indomitable Lion, Cameroon’s Roger Milla, described thus in Simon Kuper’s groundbreaking book, Football Against the Enemy. "You are an admirer of the President, I said. ‘Yes: he’s our President,’ said Milla. ‘When he goes there will be another President whom I will admire.’"

In a letter to the sailing family, issued to coincide with the start of voting in the election, Andersen claimed he had developed "good relations" with the IOC ©World Sailing
In a letter to the sailing family, issued to coincide with the start of voting in the election, Andersen claimed he had developed "good relations" with the IOC ©World Sailing

More revealingly, a further eight MNAs nominated everyone bar the incumbent, a gesture that can only be interpreted as a protest vote.

Yet, perhaps most revealing of all, when you focus solely on those MNAs which nominated one candidate and one candidate only, you get the following outcome: Li 13 nominations; Andersen, Perry and Seeliger 12 each.

That accounts for just 49 of the 145 MNAs, up to 12 of which may be ineligible to vote. So it is far from definitive. But it certainly suggests a close outcome in a contest in which second preferences look set to be crucial.

I suspect this might be a problem for Li, who looks well-placed to clean up in Asia and perhaps other areas of the developing world, but may struggle to attract second-choice votes from industrialised Western nations, should he make it through to the run-off. This is in light of mounting friction between the United States and its political allies and an increasingly ambitious China.

On the other hand, Li might be able to exploit World Sailing’s financial issues, if he can convince voters he would be able to deliver new sponsors, most likely from China, in the intensely difficult current commercial climate.

His statement of goals includes the assertion that "through my substantial business contacts around the world, I am very confident to be in a position to bring valuable sponsorships and support to World Sailing." In 2019, sponsorship accounted for £1.47 million ($1.9 million/€1.6 million) of the body’s £3.7 million ($4.8 million/€4.1 million) of operating income.

With the race seemingly so tight, one key factor may now be how the electorate reacts to concerns within the IOC regarding two of the candidates, Perry and Andersen. Will voters mark the pair down accordingly, or could they actually be more inclined to swing behind them in what they might see as an assertion of independence in the face of outside interference?

The concerns came to light in an email to the World Sailing Election Commission from Ng Ser Miang, an IOC vice-president and former vice-president of the International Sailing Federation. The email purported to relay comments by Pâquerette Girard Zappelli, the IOC’s chief ethics and compliance officer. The IOC has since emphasised this was "not the statement of an official position."

The issue relating to Perry is that he is "deprived of the right to enter the US territory for undisclosed reasons." This, according to the email, "might be difficult to manage pragmatically for the IF."

I broached the subject with the Uruguayan – whose electoral platform is entitled "Back to Basics" - in an amicable conversation before the email was made public, and he told me it was 2009, more than a decade ago, when he was first denied a visa.

He has been on World Sailing’s Audit Committee since 2012 and, as becomes evident while we talk, the restriction has not prevented him playing a key role in the governing body’s management.

He describes, for example, how, when the first tranche of an IOC loan of $3.1 million (£2.37 million/€2.6 million) - to tide World Sailing over in light of the postponement of Tokyo 2020 - was paid, he repaid some £300,000 ($391,000/€330,000) borrowed by the body under a £900,000 ($1.14 million/€992,000) overdraft facility.

World Sailing's financial situation has been one of the big talking points in the build-up to the election ©Getty Images
World Sailing's financial situation has been one of the big talking points in the build-up to the election ©Getty Images

Furthermore, as he also points out, "one of my biggest supporters is US Sailing."

If Perry were to be elected, the state of the governing body’s finances would be, he says, his first priority.

"Unless we get our finances in order nothing else will matter," he explains. "At present we are living on borrowed funds from the IOC. That is never a healthy situation to be in."

With Andersen the issue is that he, in the words of the email, "faced three consecutive issues brought to the [World Sailing] Ethics Commission – this situation which might tarnish the reputation of [World Sailing}."

I would have liked to talk to Andersen about this and aspects of his four years in charge, but he declined, saying "We have had a lot of disappointments with insidethegames" and "talking to you is basically a waste of time", though I was not to take it personally. "It’s just that I’m so busy with other things I have to prioritise," he told me.

Personally, I am yet to be persuaded he has done anything terribly wrong, and he denies wrongdoing. He has now filed an ethics complaint against Ng, who has also been accused by World Sailing of intervening in the election.

The race, in other words, has acquired a bitter timbre. This is a pity. The sport patently needs a frank and robust debate about how its governing body might better capture the interest of the young while living within its means.

This animated four-cornered contest was showing signs of providing that, in spite of the strange conditions the pandemic has imposed. Let us hope the grist of this debate is not overshadowed.