Paul Elvstrøm: Future of Olympic Sailing

Published on May 9th, 2018

There’s a lot of entitlement when it comes to the decisions about Sailing Events for the Olympic Games. Nations vote for what’s good for them. Sailors petition for what they’re involved in. Classes lobby to remain included.

It’s a challenge to make decisions that honestly consider the Sport and the Games.

The Games are unique, and it is a challenge for boats used in the Games, and those campaigning for selection, to mix with our recreational sport. The stakes are high, which pushes upward the cost to compete.

With decisions regarding the Events for the Paris 2024 Games being made at World Sailing’s 2018 Mid-Year Meeting on May 10-15, it is interesting to review the comments on the topic from 4-time gold medalist Paul Elvstrom.

Elvstrøm, who competed in the Games in the Firefly, Finn, Soling, and Tornado, was interviewed in 1992 where he expressed strong opinions for what the Events should be for in 2000.

At the time, the classes for the Barcelona 1992 Olympics were the Star, Finn, Soling, Tornado, Men’s and Women’s 470, Europe, Men’s and Women’s Lechner, and Flying Dutchman.

Here are Elvstrøm’s observations:

On the subject of changes to Olympic yachting, you cannot have a satisfactory result by making small changes. You have to start from the beginning, you have to start all over again to get the renewal everyone asks for.

We sailors are generally somewhat bored watching Olympic racing in medium to light winds. Isn’t that terrible?

I think it is boring and wrong that you have forbidden pumping, rocking, etc. in the racing. You should forbid racing in less than 5-6 knots of wind and then allow pumping, rocking, and other athletic ways of improving your speed. Olympic sailing is for athletes and for the very best – let them pump and rock as much as they can.

Olympic sailing is for the very top, for the best sailors in the world. It is not supposed to be a picnic and a social rally. But the main point is, it must be fun for the sailors, it must be demanding and challenging, and it must be exciting and dramatic. This above all means, it must be fast. If it meets these criteria, it is also spectacular and exciting to watch and good for TV.

You have to take unorthodox views on the equipment. The elite sailors should not be put into popular international classes. It is no good for the classes and it is not spectacular for the people watching. An exception could be the International 14 trapeze dinghy, but I would recommend equipment where you have three different riggings and sails for three different conditions: light, medium, and heavy winds.

There should be no sailing with less than 5-6 knots of windspeed. The race committee should decide on the rig to be used that day, based on the wind conditions. This will permit racing under different wind conditions, which will be fun, exciting, and demanding. It will also reduce the advantages of a light person in light winds and a heavy person in strong winds, and put more emphasis on the technic.

One should construct a multihull with great maneuverability and with a big asymmetric spinnaker. Today you race in a catamaran, where you generally make only one tack per beat in medium/strong winds and therefore have very few tactical possibilities.

As a matter of fact, two multihulls should be constructed – one singlehanded and one doublehanded. Both types should be fast with different rigs for different conditions and are highly maneuverable. You have the advantage that this equipment will be less sensitive to the weight and size of the sailor.

Although I was the first one to develop the singlehanded trapeze dinghy, I do not think it is a very good solution for the Olympic sailing. It takes a little too long to tack, whereas you get a better result in a singlehanded multihull with trapeze.

I do not have any strong feelings about the Finn or the Laser. I do not think it makes much difference. The Laser is certainly hopeless to hang in, and very unhealthy as such. The full equipment must be provided at the event; the sailors should not be allowed to bring their own rigs. But anyway, both dinghies are antique.

On Fun-boards, you could bring them into the Olympics with three different rigs as I have recommended, which would allow them to sail even in lighter winds with a huge sail area. You should also make the board rather large which will reduce the weight influence of the participant; it shall of course be a one-design.

The days of keelboats in the Olympic sailing are – in my opinion – out. They are slow, there is no real challenge, they are not exciting, and just think about racing a keelboat in 1996 without a spinnaker. Our great grandchildren will never believe it.

The international classes are fine, but not for Olympic sailing. However, as long as my old friends sit as class officers and in the top of the IYRU (now World Sailing), things are hopeless to change. But they do their classes a bad service.

Olympic elite sailing is one thing, and class racing is another. Both have their rights and advantages, but the classes will never promote new ideas, new development and untraditional solutions. The international classes are the most conservative force in the IYRU.

Look at the Sydney 18-ft Skiffs. When there is a strong wind, they have smaller rigging. When there is a light wind, they have a larger rig. Something like that should be developed for a three or four person boat in the Olympics.

As for the race course, it should be of the sausage type; forget all the triangles. But more important, the start should always include the round the ends rule. Also, the rules should be changed so that a general recall is not possible. If you have a change of wind direction, then abandon before the start, but only one start should be permitted in each race.

One thing that make the races more fun would be the knock-out principle. In each race you know-out the last three boats until you down to 12 or 10, and then knock-out 2 or 1 each race.

If you have the sausage course, why not anchor three or four balloons with television cameras down the course. That would cover the course very well, and with a competent commentator and fast boats with lots of sail area in relation to the wind, yacht racing would appeal far more to the public.

Regarding match racing, in my view it is so boring to watch, at least in light and medium winds. The main reason why match racing has the popularity is the money. The amount of money involved, spectacular prize money, and the large crews gives it the popularity. But just think of a match race where one boat is punished before the start, and you have to follow a race which is so unexciting as anything.

I would strongly recommend that you change the starting procedure so that you have three marks on the starting line and each boat has its own part of the starting line and they start at the same time. You would have a better chance of some close racing.

As for the equipment, you have to start now if you want equipment for your 2000. Let the IYRU specify the type of equipment they want, but make the specifications very, very broad.

Specify a singlehanded equipment, highly maneuverable, very fast with three rigs for different conditions, and then invite the builders and constructors to come with their equipment and test the most suitable equipment. It would have to be a very very competent group of IYRU specialists, but it would surely be great fun. You can do the same with the two-person equipment – you could specify that the three rigs for women should be slightly smaller in area, get the best sailors to test it, and then select your equipment for the year 2000 and onwards.

I am sure there are people or manufacturers enough who would be very keen to produce this equipment so it can be supplied at the events.

Please give my greetings and Love to my good old friends in IYRU.

Did Elvstrom get his wish? Here is what changed from the 1992 to 2000 Olympic Games:

Barcelona 1992: Star, Finn, Soling, Tornado, Men’s and Women’s 470, Europe, Men’s and Women’s Lechner, Flying Dutchman.

Sydney 2000: Star, Finn, Soling, Tornado, Men’s and Women’s 470, Europe, Men’s and Women’s Mistral, Laser, and 49er.

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