A bit of background: 22 year old Dublin native Annalise Murphy came into the 2012 Olympics as a longshot for a medal in the women’s singlehanded class—and then shocked everyone by winning the first four races of the event. That’s quite a feat, and the Irish press and population quickly rallied behind their unexpected heroine. The problem was, most of them didn’t know much of anything about the sport of sailing.
Enter a wee bit of Irish humor, perhaps moistened with a fair bit of Jameson’s. Francis Higgins posted a video (apparently his first, at least on Vimeo) that cobbled together clips of a Laser Radial prestart, and then he narrated it as if it were an actual race.
The video went viral. Soon afterward (predictably, in hindsight), the International Olympic Committee complained to Vimeo that "this material is infringing," and it was removed from their site.
For those of you who didn't catch it, the narrator tries to figure out what’s going on while commenting on boathandling, advising any sailor who tacks or jibes to “mind your head.” My favorite remark was about the sailor who tacks to port and weaves through a wall of starboard tackers: “Some madman going the wrong way completely… go back you fool, you’re not gonna win any medals going that way!”
This was by far the most popular video I’ve ever posted on my Facebook page—a hit especially with non-sailors. Even the Huffington Post jumped on it, commenting, “He's somehow able to take a horribly disorganized mess of boats on the verge of crashing and turn it into something you don't hate watching.”
Here's the Laser Radial recap from NBC. It won't be a surprise that their coverage is much less playful and much more reverent than the never-to-be-seen again video from hero-for-a-day Francis Higgins.
From the response to the parody, it's obvious non-sailors appreciate anything that makes them feel they’re not alone in their lack of appreciation for our sport. They like realizing that there are many other intelligent folks who just can’t figure out what the h*&^ is going on when watching sailboat racing.
Olympic sailing has definitely improved its TV appeal and onsite viewability with the addition of match racing and the medal races. And it’s great to have online live video feeds. But it’s still tough even for sailors to follow what’s going on in the fleet racing; I keep wishing for a snapshot of where the boats are on the overall course, and some info about what the breeze is doing.
Non-sailors, of course, are even more confused, which is what Francis Higgins so humorously captured. Why do the boats seem to be zigging and zagging all over the place, instead of lining up and heading toward the finish tape like any normal group of Olympic competitors? How do you tell when someone’s ahead? How, in fact, do you even tell when they’ve started, with four different guns going off in the space of five minutes?
Annalise didn’t win her medal, finishing an agonizing fourth. But she helped raise the visibility of her sport, not just in her native Ireland but around the world. Sailing will never be able to compete with track and field for TV appeal or ease of filming and viewing. So if parody is our best hope for visibility, bring on more belly-laughing videos like this one. Even if they're only available for a day or two, before the IOC pulls them down.