Every four years there is a rush of blood through the veins of World Sailing (formerly ISAF) as the Olympic “slate” – which is the combination of classes to comprise the Olympics six years from the decision year – is decided. The process is quite complex, and theoretically thorough, and always leads to criticism, outrage, not to mention hurt feelings on both sides of the approval and disapproval factions. In many ways it must be a thankless task. What is undoubted is that the decisions made during this process have a profound effect on the Olympic regatta. A show is only as good as the stage management and props!
On the topic of analogies, if we are calling the Olympics a show, the actors (in this case athletes) can to a large extent overcome poor stage management. The athletes are some of the best exponents of our sport in the world, so it is no surprise that the show is always good, regardless of the classes. We saw this in the somewhat disastrous classes of Yngling and Elliot, where the women were given ancient, low performance and rather mundane keelboats to fleet race and match race, and came up with superb sailing shows.
In terms of comment, we must state that we’ve seen some great classes go out – we’ve seen the demise of the classic, fastest ever Olympic class, the Tornado, the classic Star, capable of steaming round a course in 4-5 knots when others are just above a drift, the Soling, which provided a decent performance and some of the best racing seen. The logic behind changing Star and Soling was obvious, with spiralling costs and difficult logistics. The Tornado probably still merits a place, simply because there is little faster round a course. Now we see the demise of the Finn, and a restructuring of the 470.
If we are to be constructively critical of the choice of slate for 2024 there are indeed many questions to be asked. In the past all classes nominated have been proven, sailed by a lot of nations and attracting massive fields, which obviously ensures great competition for places. Probably the first boats not to be chosen on that basis were the Elliots, which were a massively powerful MR boat, native to Australia, which were then massively detuned to reduce the desired minimum crew weight of around 270kg for the crew of three, down to something more normal for women. Essentially the boat lost most of its virtues in this redesign, with the sail area substantially reduced with a sail that can only be said to look like a school sail, and the full length keel reduced to a relatively high aspect drop keel, which produced more leeway than has ever been seen in any other Olympic class. For the 2024 slate, the new classes equipment has yet to be chosen, but the nervous answers from the power people indicate that they can only choose equipment that is put forward for the equipment trials, and they are hamstrung by that process.
The end result is this: We have four mixed gender events. The mixing of genders establishes an ability to represent more diversity of classes in the Olympic regatta. We have a core of performance classes in the Nacra (now foiling), 49er and FX skiffs, which produce great racing and spectacular wipeouts. We have a potentially unchanged and proven windsurfing fleet that’s produced some great racing on a consistent basis. Then we have the 470s – always classic racing and often exciting by the closeness of finish. and Lasers, earning their spot through the affordability and massive nation numbers who can participate on greatly reduced budgets – it could be argued that many of the Laser fleet are making up political numbers, but it prodices great racing at the front. Then we have unproven kites and offshore.
Many insiders are (almost) happy with all bar the two totally new and totally unproven classes of kites and offshore mixed keelboats. The reason is primarily this: The Olympic ethos in sailing is strong, and when a new class is nominated there are at least a handful of existing Olympic athletes who wish to take the new class by the throat, and wring every last drop of performance out of it. This is at the core of what makes the Olympics a great regatta – not the choice of classes but the athlete talent and attitude, which is so far removed from club and national sailing as to be a real system shock for any newcomers to Olympic sailing. When a new class is chosen, despite claims of durability we know it will break. We know it will start to perform at the “next level” within days, and continue picking up performance through its lifetime as Olympic equipment. We know that a boat designed to last at peak performance for four years will be spent after at most one year, because of the torture that real hungry and ruthless Olympians put it through. The same with sails and spars. The extremes are difficult for an outsider or normal sailor to comprehend, but they are very real and proven.
This leads many to question the wisdom of introducing kites and offshore to the slate. Kites can evolve through the world cup, but need to pick up massively in the numbers of real competitors. The Olympic hunger and zeal may conceivably spark from the World Cup environment, and the fact that the class attracts older competitors, and many retired top windsurfers, which should spark something towards the insane drive that is needed to produce a top show. Whilst it is a risk that this may not happen, with the right coaching and motivation of Olympic medals, it could be a big success. The format is another risk, as this is unproven in many ways, with massive protest numbers and an apparent lack of changing position. Hopefully it will evolve in good time – we will for sure be pulling for it to do so.
The offshore class has a lot more uncertainty. Top offshore sailors are undoubtedly of the ilk of Olympians. Will top offshore sailors be attracted to a class of boat which is best described as “traditional”? Will there be any association with World Cup regattas, and an evolution of athletes to fit into the pattern of the hardened fighting Olympians who make the show so great? Too much is unknown at this point to say, and therein lies the challenge for many – an unknown class, with an unknown format, with an unknown pathway to qualification and training for the four year minimum introduction to competing hard for medals. The way things currently sound to many pundits is that sailors will be selected for trials and the Games, and the evolution and training process over four years is to be largely ignored. This is speculative, but a real concern as it would devalue medals in comparison to other classes.
Finally we have the apparent demise of the Finn. The Finn is undoubtedly up there in having been sailed by legends. It is proven, physical, always produces great champions and fulfils every criteria needed for an Olympic class, aside form maybe speed when measured by contemporary standards. It is also the only Olympic class for guys over 85kg. For the last reason alone many would argue that the Finn merits a slot on the slate. The apparent counter argument is that gymnastics, running and other sports have ideal weights and size limitations, so why not apply that to sailing? Our view is that sailing is inclusive, so why not make it such by the inclusion of a heavyweight boat. Regardless of that, the powers that be have now excluded dinghy sailors over 85kg, and that’s all. At Toplevel Sailing we have an answer to that, which will be the topic of next weeks blog, so don’t give up big guys – there’s more Olympic prospects than you think! Either way, we are tremendously sad that the big guys have been apparently shoved out of their traditional home, and the theory they could transfer to offshore is really seemingly without basis at this moment, with no World Cup affiliations.
In summary, we at Toplevel Sailing try not to participate too much in political affairs over which we can have little influence. Obviously it is worth commenting on the slate, in the hope that the people deciding the classes and formats can make more informed choices in future. We adopt the attitude of wanting to coach and compete on whatever is chosen in the traditional Olympic spirit – go at it as hard as we can, encouraging our sailors to do the same, and learn not only the way to be the best sailors they can be, but the best competitors and people too. We are confident that in 2024 there will be another great show for sailing, largely guaranteed through the incredible people who compete in the Olympic Regatta.