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Kindly Leave the Stage - What Happens to Ex-Olympic Classes?

by David Henshall 3 Dec 12:00 GMT
The Carnival is over... but the Show must go on! © Ciocan Ciprian / Unsplash

The Carnival is over...but the Show must go on!
(with thanks to The Seekers and Leo Sayer respectively)

You probably have to be at the distant end of the age spectrum to remember the excitement of when the circus came to town, then the inevitable sadness that followed when they dropped the big top before moving on. But, as Geoffrey Chaucer said some 750 years ago, all good things must come to an end, and maybe as we look back with hindsight at what was going on behind the scenes, it is clear that today, yes, the time is right to move on. As sailors, we should also be aware that a collection of various performers and the antics of the clowns are not the only circus in town, for the term 'five ringed circus' is a good, if rather derogatory description of the Olympics, and if you want real clowns, smoke and mirrors with some clumsy conjuring tricks, then you need look no further than the recent shenanigans within World Sailing.

The levers of power that have decided the future direction of Olympic Sailing. To some, they may be clowns, to others, visionaries. Only time will tell!

However, in recent days, these comparisons with a circus have never been stronger, all the more now that the Finn has been told to "kindly leave the stage", with the Olympic Regatta at Enoshima in 2020 bringing an end to 72 years of unbroken service. As a consequence of this decision, yachting-related social media has been buzzing with comments along the lines of "how dare they", often followed up with invitations to join yet another petition demanding that those who sent the 'Finn to the Bin' think again, head to the naughty step, or both. Maybe though there is an equally valid counter view, suggesting that - far from being 'the end of the world as we know it' - being dropped from the roster of classes on Olympic duty could actually free the Finn class to take on new directions, that could make it an even more popular boat around the globe.

The Finn fleet at the 2018 Sailing World Championships was almost four times the size of the Olympics and was stacked full of race winning talent.

First though, the whole issue of the Finn and its relationship with the Olympic Regatta has to be put into a new perspective. At Rio for the 2016 regatta, the Finns were allocated 23 places, at Enoshima they will have just 19, yet at the Sailing World Championships 90 places were on offer for the class. No wonder then that there are those who see the Olympics as something of a side show when compared to competition for an event such as the Finn Gold Cup. Since 1956 this has been not just the pinnacle in Finn sailing, but widely accepted as one of the great achievements in world class dinghy sailing. In many respects the Gold Cup is, like the Olympics, a showpiece event for dedicated and honed athletes (only the Gold Cup is so much bigger) but even this event pales in size when one considers the huge global attraction of the Finn World Masters event. Just how popular could be seen when the 2018 Championships attracted some 350+ boats to El Balis in Spain, not to mention another 65 boats who competed for the European Masters.

The Finn Masters have redefined the description of a 'big' event, with sailors from across the globe gathering in their hundreds. It is hard to envisage this situation changing just because the Finn is no longer in the Olympics.

At the other end of the age scale, the Under 23 Championships for the Finn Silver Cup, also attracted a strong entry, but these are just some of the headline acts for a year. Underpinning all of these is a vibrant club scene, with the Finns having something of a constant presence on the regular club racing scene.

All of this helps remind us that the Finn is actually a very good boat and just because it is no longer required for the Olympic Regatta, the change of circumstances has not suddenly turned it into a bad one. Indeed, the prospects for the Finn merely reinforce the experiences of some of the other classes who fell out of Olympic favour. For the right boat, carefully packaged to present the right 'offer' for sailors and with some well-targeted backing, life post-Olympics is not just about survival, but can even be about progression. This should not come as a surprise, as for a boat to become an Olympic candidate, the majority have first and foremost been international classes (an exception to this rule would be a boat like the US-centric Snowbird, which was used in the Los Angeles Games back in 1932) and have an established platform of existing support. Going back in time even further than the Snowbird, the International 12 - which served as the Olympic single-hander in 1920 and 1928 - has been able to build on that wide-spread support at grass roots level.

A more modern example in the single-handed scene would be the Europe, the 1960 spin off from the International Moth. Like the Finn, the Europe was the complete opposite of the SMOD ethos, where instead of a 'one size has to fit all' mentality, the sailor could choose the combination of mast and sail (not to mention foils, fittings, hulls even) that best suited their individual requirements. Despite the 11ft hull length the Europe was a wonderfully sweet and responsive dinghy to sail and if there was one dinghy that fulfilled the title of a 'great little boat' then this had to be it!

The Europe is a small boat with a big heart; a good performer when the winds are light, the boat can also handle the more boisterous conditions.

Again, the Europe had a strong international pedigree long before it was elevated into the Olympics as the Women's singlehander. But within this success would not only lie the seeds of the eventual downfall for the Europe, but would provide a good deal of collateral for those in other classes who had argued that their boat should stay OUT of the Games. At the heart of the problem was the issue that in the search for the final percentage point of performance, that development within the Europe was coming at an ever-increasing price. That price tag also meant that the Europe had becoming technically demanding for the helm, an issue that was seen as limiting the access to emerging nations. The introduction of the Laser Radial might have ticked more of the boxes that were required back then, but being taken out of the Olympic scene did not sound the death knell for the Europe.

A small portion of the Europe fleet at the World Championships. With a healthy mix of both sexes in the class, the Europe continues to fill a niche for a quality, international lightweight's boat.

Instead, the class has continued to thrive, with 61 men and 36 women competing in this year's European Championships, with a similar sized fleet for the Worlds. Clearly, the Europe is an attractive proposition for lighter weight helms of both sexes, as it continues to offer high class international competition, often on a gender-neutral playing field (hang on...isn't that what World Sailing have been looking for?).

If the Europe was the smallest dinghy to serve on Olympic duty, then the biggest dinghy to feature, the Flying Dutchman, was yet another class to find that the times had moved on, leaving the FD out in the cold. On the face of it, this really should have been the end for the Flying Dutchman as it was an elitist boat, horribly expensive to build and maintain and apparently of limited attraction to the mainstream of dinghy racing.

A victim of the so called 'skiff revolution', the Flying Dutchman was always a class act and continues to be so even with the boat outside of the five ring circus.

Unlike the 5o5, which had for so long been the challenger for the FD's Olympics slot, the Flying Dutchman had never really been at home in the rough and tumble of round-the-cans club racing, all of which would suggest that life would be bleak once the lure of Olympic glory had faded. However, in a twist of fate, the Flying Dutchman - which had been initially commissioned as a 'Central European Lake Boat' - found that this was a role that the boat was eminently suited to. Far from sinking without trace, the class remains steadfastly buoyant across its European heartland. At the 2018 World Championships, 25 years after falling out of Olympic favour, the class saw a turnout of 74 boats from 14 nations which is hardly symptomatic of a class in terminal decline, even if it is a bit down on the 130 boats from 21 nations that contested the event in 2011!

The numbers do not tell the whole story, but the FD continues to deliver top class competition on a world-wide basis.

Another boat that was large in size but was perceived as not just elitist but prohibitively expensive was the first attempt at including a multihull into the ranks of the five ring circus. In a sign of how quickly the times were a'changin, the Tornado started life as a classic, single trapeze and white sail rigged cat, only to morph into a twin-wire, spinnaker assisted flying machine. By the time the Olympic Regatta moved to Qingdao in 2008, the Tornado was almost the 'poster boat' for the Games, with huge images of the cat being projected up on to the sides of buildings around the city.

High speed, close-quarter racing, in 2008 the Tornado was seen as the 'glory' boat of the Olympic regatta. The loss of the Olympic catamaran slot has changed nothing, for the Tornado still delivers as a 'top-cat' out afloat.

When racing started, the Tornado provided some of the best TV footage, only to fall foul of the politics with ISAF once the Games had finished. Elsewhere, cats were starting to fly and with the 'foiling is the future' mindset holding sway the Tornado, the expectation was that the Tornado would not be around for much longer. Firstly, cats were totally out of five-ringed favour and then when they did return, it would be with the Nacra 17, a very different beast to the majestic Tornado.

Again, it is of little surprise that there are sailors all over the world who far prefer the wonderful experience afloat that comes courtesy of the Tornado to the potentially faster speeds that may come with other boats; maybe when you're already going that fast, a little bit more speed may well seem to be only be a relative change. But like the FD, a strong euro-presence, added to a continued interest from around the world, has kept interest in the Tornado on a par with that before the ISAF axe fell.

No matter how hard you look at a list of the main ex-Olympic dinghies (those that have done at least two regattas) it is hard to find a boat that is not still active and with competitive fleets, at least on a European, if not a full-on global basis. The usual arguments - that the boats are not that popular, being of limited appeal and over expensive - can all too often have their roots in the UK sailing scene, which is a very different beast to that found elsewhere. One can almost see a strange love-hate relationship existing in the British psyche towards Olympic sailing, where we love the successes and lionise the sailors, yet don't really care for the boats themselves. Maybe this is in part a manifestation of our lack of success at designing the boats themselves, a field that we can hardly claim to be that successful at!

Limited appeal, expensive, often elitist, this is all good material for the finger pointers that bedevil our sport, all the more so when they focus on anything sporting a keel slung beneath it! Yet compared to the dinghies, the list of once-Olympic keelboats is far longer, going all the way back to the Metre boats that dominated the early years of the sport. Yet even in these most exclusive of boats, the majority of whom have not seen the waters of an Olympic racecourse for many a year (the 5.5m was the last Metre boat used at Acapulco in 1968), life outside of the 'circus' continues in a manner not that different from before, but then the Metre boats were never the boat for mass appeal.

In the search for a more accessible, cost effective three-man keelboat, the IYRU went one-design, with the Jan Linge-designed Soling, which certainly gave this format in the Games something of a wider appeal! A popular class in both North and South America, the Far East, Australia and across Europe, the Soling served as both a fleet and match racing platform. Dropped after the Sydney Games in 2000, the Soling has lost some of the previous support enjoyed, squeezed out between the newer boats that form the sportsboat genres, or to the updated-but-traditional boats such as the Dragon.

Like so many of the other ex-Olympic classes, the Soling has maintained a strong presence both in Europe and in the Americas, despite being squeezed by the sportsboat revolution.

A smaller version of the Soling, the Yngling, would bring its designer, Jan Linge, the fame of being the only designer with two separate classes in the Olympics. After gaining traction as an advanced Youth and Women's keelboat, the Yngling would appear in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Regattas as the Women's keelboat, only to lose its place to the Elliot 6 when Women's Match Racing made a sole appearance at Weymouth in 2012. The powerbase for the Yngling remains in the Northern European and Nordic nations, though the boats are also still sailed in North America and Canada.

The popularity of the Yngling has spread far beyond it's Nordic heartlands, with boats being sailed competitively in the US, Canada and Australia.

A much better example of success in both a pre- and post-Olympic career, the Dragon has few equals, as this 1928 design can claim popular support from sailing nations right around the world. After being added into the Games for the first post-war event at Torquay in 1948, the Dragon would go on to make no less than seven appearances at the Olympics until after the 1972 Regatta at Kiel the class was finally dropped.

Yet little more than a year later, the Dragon would get an incredible post-Olympics shot in the arm as master Dragon builder Borge Børresen produced the first GRP boats. The class had decided to replace the traditional wooden spars with metal ones just a few years earlier and together these two changes helped spur a whole new level of interest in racing the boat. More recently, lighter and modern keelboats would be developed, with the best of popular on the International circuit, yet the Dragon would still progress to create a post-Games niche capable of attracting the best in top class sailing talent to the top events.

For many years the Dragon carried a reputation as a 'boat for old men' but the modern fleet of today is rich in top class yachting talent of all ages

There are of course other ways of turning the disappointment of being dropped from the Games into a new form of success, with one interesting route charted by the venerable Star, the only class to match the Finn for a longevity that is truly Olympian. With a design that is now more than 100 years old, the popularity of the Star was tempered by the level of technical difficulty involved in creating anything of an advantage in performance, plus the sheer physicality of the boat.

As small boat racing enjoyed the start of the boom period of the early 1960s, there was a strong feeling that a better, more modern performance two-man one-design keelboat could be developed, with the result being Ian Proctor's very rapid Tempest. In 1972, the new boat appeared at the Olympics for the first time, where it also looked to be in place for a lengthy run. Unlike the Star, with its anachronistic rig, the Tempest followed a very dinghy-like set up above deck with a balanced main and genoa, plus a large spinnaker, all kept in balance by a trapeze crew.

Given the complaints that abound today that anyone bigger than the average jump jockey size no longer has a place in the Olympics, the Tempest liked a big weight out on the wire, with 'big' starting at the upper end of a Flying Dutchman/5o5 sized crew. However, once powered up, the Tempest flew and though the TV coverage was still poor/non-existent at the time, reports speak of the Tempest fleet in breeze making for a spectacular sight.

Despite an early exit from the Olympic stage after only two regattas, the Tempest was a classic in terms of a performance keelboat and has maintained its popularity – in Europe

A delightful boat to sail both upwind and down, and a real experience when sailed in big breezes, the success of the Tempest would end up counting for nought in the ISAF Committee Rooms, where the Star would mount a successful rear-guard action that saw it brought back at the expense of the Tempest for the 1980 Regatta at Talinn (when, in a bizarre move, many of the supporters of the class ended up boycotting the event anyway). Another eight Olympic appearances would come before the Star was finally retired after Weymouth in 2012, but this was far from the end of the story for this amazing boat.

With the very deep pockets of some key backers, who could also help generate a level of sponsorship most other classes can only dream off, the the Star Sailors League (SSL) has shown the ability to bring top sailors into the boat for the well-funded, high profile events, though the jury is still out on the ability of the class to turn this success into a more established, broad base of support.

With big money prizes up for grabs, the Star Sailors League can pull in the very best sailors from across the various genres. However, the jury is still out on broadening out this interest to a grass roots popularity.

However it is achieved, post-Olympic success is still... success, which in the world of small boat sailing today makes the continued existence of so many classes that had been cast-off as rejects even more notable. Even classes like the Yngling and Tempest, which could rightly claim to have never been given the right backing from above to enjoy a lengthy spell of Olympic glory can still point to 40+ boat fleets at their major regattas. Of course, the supporters of the successors to these boats may well point to the older boats hanging around like this as one of the barriers to the further acceptance of the new classes, yet all too often, the new can be found wanting in a comparison with those older rejects from the Olympics.

All the evidence therefore points to life outside of the Olympic family as being very much what the class makes it. With the superb class organisation that underpins the Finn and in particular, with its top of the class communications strategy, there is nothing to suggest that life for the boat will suffer a major down turn in its global popularity.

All the work that has been done over the past year that focused on the plight of the larger, more physical sailor has merely highlighted the need in the dinghy world for a truly international singlehander for the bigger sailor. Moreover, given the way in which the Olympic Regatta seems to be heading, there is also a valid and strong viewpoint that if this is the World Sailing way of doing things, then the Finn really is better off out of it!

Despite being told to kindly leave the stage, there is one fact that cannot be denied. If you sail a Finn, you'll never be a 'billy no-mates', for the superb organisation, excellent communications strategy and existing spread of the class!

If that be the case, then some of the more recent comments have more than a hint of "the lady doth protest too much methinks", but in keeping with the theatrical analogy, maybe it really is time for the Finn to say farewell to the Olympics, but at the same time look to take on the lead role on the world stage of real dinghy sailing.

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