"Sailing is the most inclusive sport"

Photo: Sailboats on the open sea

A regatta usually consists of multiple individual races, where the boat that performs best in each race is the overall winner; © panthermedia.net/Alina Pavlova

As a Paralympic discipline, sailing is being dropped. The decision of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to eliminate sailing from the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games is not just a bitter pill to swallow for athletes. The resolution is also going to have a long-term negative impact on this national and international recreational sport.


Heiko Kröger is one of the best-known Paralympic sailors in the Sailing Team Germany. In 2002, he celebrated his biggest success by winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. His parents introduced him to sailing early in his life and he has been at it ever since. Before he switched to the Paralympic discipline about 16 years ago, he also sailed in the Olympics despite his disability – Kröger was born without his left forearm. "I didn’t make the switch because I wouldn’t hav

Equality as the most important component

The boat that fascinates Kröger is a one-person keelboat and is called 2.4mR or two-point-four among experts. The stable vessel measures 4.20 meters long, 0.8 meters wide and weighs 264 kilograms. What makes this boat so special is that it can be operated by persons with and without physical disabilities. During competitions such as the Kiel Week or Kiel Regatta (German: Kieler Woche) or the World Cup, athletes with mixed abilities launch their boats. They are not – as is customary- divided into different categories based on their degree of disability. Kröger points out, "It’s every man for himself! In our sport, inclusion has been a reality for many years."

Equality is primarily made possible by the sports equipment. Unlike in the case of Markus Rehm, it ensures comparability between persons with and without a disability. The boat can be adapted to the respective skills of the athlete with little effort. Kröger steers his boat with his feet. He was born without a left forearm. Other athletes steer their boats with their hands or even by using their mouths.

Kröger is convinced that the equality the 2.4mR permits actually makes sailing the most inclusive sport of all. "In the case of Markus Rehm I would also say that there is no equality of competition. I am sure that even better high-tech prosthetics could be made with the corresponding financial assistance. If someone subsequently runs faster or jumps higher or further with a prosthesis, fairness no longer plays a part in this."
Photo: Heiko Kröger sailing in his boat

Heiko Kröger is sailing an one-person keelboat (2.4mR) which is known for being unsinkable; © Ainhoa Sanchez/Audi

Sailing no longer a Paralympic discipline in 2020

This is why it is especially tragic that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has eliminated sailing as a Paralympic discipline starting in 2020. Kröger is appalled. "This decision is incomprehensible. Of all sports, sailing is the one where disabled and able-bodied athletes can join together in the spirit of inclusion. The IPC flies in the face of what others have built and worked so hard on for so many years."

Originally, the reason was said to be a lack of international participation. In the end, only three or four nations were missing. Yet Kröger believes the decision was due to financial aspects. After all, a sailing competition is a very expensive event for many different reasons. Even though the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), of which the International Association for Disabled Sailing has become an affiliate member last year, has left no stone unturned to avert this decision, the IPC sticks by its decision.

Far-reaching impact on the recreational sport

Another problem resulting from this decision is the fact that starting in 2017, sailing will no longer be a part of the recreational sports category. "This means that national disabled sports organizations are no longer able to promote the sport as they used to. Boats owned by the organization need to be sold, trainers need to be dismissed and athletes are no longer being sponsored. Once sailing is dropped as a Paralympic discipline it will never become a Paralympic sport again," explains Kröger. The crucial question then becomes how sailing is supposed to be developed and promoted on an international level when two-thirds or three-fourths of all nations are forced to abandon the sport.
Photo: Heiko Kröger during a competition

Up to 115 boats are competing during an open World Championship. The proportion of sailors with disabilities is about 25 percent; © Richard Walch/Audi

Taking initiative and promoting disability sports

This is why Kröger is not just active in sports. He is also the project manager of inclusion within the Sailing Team Germany. At this point, six sailing associations in Germany offer inclusive sailing programs for persons with and without disabilities. That means there is no special disability team; the work with persons with a disability is part of the normal sailing operation. "This is the best step towards inclusion," Kröger says happily. "The Aktion Mensch (English: Disability Initiative) has allocated a budget for us that assists us in promoting the sport of sailing. We want to lead the way and set an example with these organizations or inclusion hubs as we call them."

This way, sailing is made accessible for persons with disabilities. Other associations are also meant to be motivated to adapt this concept. "We show them how it works and are available to answer any questions. My job is to coordinate these hubs and consult with associations and sailors. It is very important to me to continue to organize and promote sailing for persons with disabilities in Germany."
Foto: Melanie Günther; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Fromman

Melanie Günther
(translated by Elena O'Meara)