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Charley Cook, Principal Race Officer - 2008 Olympic Games
As Principal Race Officer for the Olympic Regatta, Charley Cook (USA) worked with 25 other race officers appointed by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) and supervised five separate race management teams and approximately 150 Chinese race officers and volunteers to organize 11 sailing events on five courses for 272 boats and some 400 sailors! Charley’s previous experiences include being an International Umpire at the Louis Vuitton Cup and an International Juror at the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece. To prepare for the 2008 Olympics, Charley took ten trips to China over the past four years to practice with and train Chinese race management teams.
What unique challenges did Qingdao present?
Cook: Distance, time and local sourcing of materials. It's really easy to run races near your home. You can stop by in advance as often as you wish for training, inspections, practice, and organizational meetings. That's pretty hard to do when the venue is 10,000 miles away and 12 hours ahead of you. I accomplished a lot by Skype phone calls with Qu Chun, the Competition Manager. But, there was no substitute to getting on a plane and meeting with the signal boat builder, equipment people, or the leaders of the race management team.
Sourcing of race management equipment was our biggest challenge. At home, we all know where to buy anchors, anchor windlasses, marks, inflators, course boards and so on. Much of that wasn't available in China. We made great progress when Qu Chun and three of his colleagues stayed at my house a year ago. Instead of playing tour guide, I sat with them on our porch for one entire afternoon. I showed them my course boards, anchor retrieval balls (and related rings, etc), anchor lines with chains and counterweights, inflators and other equipment. They took careful notes and lots of pictures. They copied, and in some cases improved upon, what I showed them.
We all expected that language would be a big problem. It really wasn't. There were translators on every boat. Many of our colleagues spoke excellent English. We just had to remember to avoid using any slang terms they didn't learn in school. I'm afraid we may have taught them some expressions they shouldn't use in class. :-)
What did the local organizational team do particularly well?
Cook: The local organization did a phenomenal job training volunteers on basic race management procedures, such as setting gates, using a GPS and all of the other skills that we take for granted. We provided a manual and certification criteria. The volunteered traveled to Qingdao many times to train.
Qu Chun did an incredible job building support and acceptance of a team of 26 international race officers parachuting in to help out. He's a natural leader. I can't imagine many yacht clubs in the USA (or anywhere else for that matter) being so willing to work as a team with "outsiders."
Despite all the preparation, were there still any surprises that could not be anticipated?
Cook: There are always surprises and challenges. The trick is to deal with them when they come up and not lose focus. We were successful in that regard in some instances and not so successful in other instances.
The "algae problem" had been largely resolved by the time of the first practice race. We did have a number of contingency plans in place that, fortunately, were never implemented since the algae turned out to be a minor issue during the regatta. The Chinese government and regatta organizers did an incredible job removing the algae and preventing a large-scale reoccurrence. Frankly I can't imagine that type of large-scale, coordinated response occurring in the USA.
The biggest surprise was getting a call that the signal boat on the farthest course was sinking and trying to return to the harbor. It's pretty hard to focus on setting up a race course when you're concerned about the lives of 10+ people. Who would have anticipated that?
The top sailing countries have noted how much advanced effort was spent on researching the winds and tides. Did your team have to make a similar effort?
Cook: Several of the teams had very complex weather and tidal forecast products. We were provided with some of their products as a courtesy. They were quite good. We also had a lot of sophisticated products, including some type of radar for measuring and predicting current. However, the most accurate forecasts were the least expensive and most simple - our eyes. After so many trips to Qingdao several of us got pretty good at predicting what was going to happen during the day. We also had a secret weapon - Shao Xianli. He was the lead Chinese official on the BRAVO course. He's been working on the waters off Qingdao his entire life. His experience and predictions were almost always spot on.
Did the demands of broadcasting factor in to RC decisions? How much communication was there between the RO (and/or PRO) and Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co. (BOB)?
Cook: We had an excellent, collaborative relationship with BOB. A liaison was appointed by BOB, who was excellent. I was in touch with him at least 3 or 4 times a day. As an active sailor he understood our challenges and was very easy to work with. I've read some of the internet comments about decisions being made to satisfy the needs of TV. In reality, that wasn't true. BOB provided input on which class it would prefer to start first on Medal Race days, and requested some time delays on Medal Race days in order to move on-board cameras from one class to another. In every case BOB made clear that it understood that race management concerns took precedence over their wishes.
Every day BOB posted a camera person and a leader (I don't know the actual title) on the signal boat that was working the course being televised. The leader was an Olympic Gold medalist (470 - AUS). She had direct contact with every BOB boat and the helicopters. If we needed a boat or helicopter moved, it happened very quickly. The leader was not there to interfere in our job. Her role - which she did very well - was to keep all BOB resources updated on what we were doing.
The MEDIA boats, however, were a challenge. Early on we had some issues with the positioning of MEDIA boats and the driving skills of the operators. I think we had that sorted out within the first few days.
Any great lessons learned from this experience?
Cook: This was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To be sure, it was very challenging and time consuming. But, I really enjoyed seeing a team of hundreds of Chinese and 26 International Race Officers come together with a common goal. In that sense, the lesson was that we have a lot in common with our fellow sailors around the world. It's a great community.
I also re-learned the lesson of taking nothing for granted. Start at the most basic level and move up as quickly or as slowly as the situation warrants.
Do you see Qingdao becoming a major sailing center on a local level, national level, or international level?
Cook: Qingdao would like very much to become a major international destination - for tourism and sailing. It has some of the best facilities in the world. It has a legacy of trained race management teams. The Competition Manager, Qu Chun, is a fantastic resource. I have no doubt that Qingdao will again be in the international spotlight.
Special thanks to US SAILING for some of the information included in this interview.