Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Olympic sailing should be hard

Since the catamaran was eliminated from the 2012 Olympics, there has been more discussion than I can ever recall as to what types of events should be in the Olympics. I have endorsed the five discipline position, wherein the events should represent singlehanded and doublehanded dinghies, multihulls, keelboats, and boards. These are the main roads in our sport, and this approach provides the most talented sailors with the ultimate goal to seek.

Sailing is allowed 10 Olympic events, and the choice of which boats are to be used in each event is a harder choice - a choice that will be made in May for the 2016 Olympics. However, my contention is that whatever the choice, the ability to sail the boat must be hard too. Excellence in the Olympics must require extreme commitment, maturity, and skill. These tools take time to earn, and it is during this time when the audience gets to meet the sailors. If the sport is eager to broaden its audience, it must first allow the audience to meet and respect the competitors.

In January I was afforded the opportunity to observe nearly 800 sailors from 53 countries prepare for the Rolex Miami OCR, the elite Olympic and Paralympic event in the United States. During my limited time I came away with three distinct impressions:

THE STAR: Walking through the trailer park where the Star teams prepared is not unlike attending the America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race, or any other prestigious event in sailing. So many of the people working on their boats were some of the best known sailors in the sport. Pardon the pun, but this class has ‘star appeal’, more so than any of the current events. What is the attraction? The best attracts the best, partly because the boat is hard to sail.

THE FINN: This class gets more criticism than the rest. The design is old, and it looks it. But until you watch these singlehanded sailors in action, people should hold their comments. This boat is sailed by men... strong men. The athleticism to duck the boom and the power to push the boat is not for the timid. The boat is technical. And now that the class permits prohibited propulsion (pumping, rocking, etc) in 10 knots, the endurance required is epic. The offwind technique is borderline violent.

THE 470: This class has seemingly been the gateway for many of the top North American sailors... assuming they are the right size. And it is similar to what is commonly sailed as a doublehanded dinghy, except that it is an exceedingly technical boat. In fact, it is a huge step beyond what most young people in this continent are used to sailing. The ability needed to excel in this class is demonstrated by sailors such as Dave Ullman, Steve Benjamin, Morgan Reeser, Kevin Burnham, Paul Foerster, and Charlie McKee who all made their mark in this event, and continue to be leaders in the sport.

These three classes are the most senior of the Olympics events, and are the most commonly criticized in today’s effort to stimulate audience interest in the Olympics. I don’t disagree that the novelty of the foiling International Moth and the dynamism of the Kite event will provide stunning visuals. But I want substance too.

For me, I want the Olympics to be hard. I would prefer not to see teenagers on the podium, but rather seasoned athletes who have paid dearly for the privilege to wear the medal, to see their flag flown, and to have their country applaud them. That to me is what the Olympic Games is all about. - Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt editor

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At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Greg Sieck said...

Great post Craig. I have sailed the Star since high school (class of 74) because it is hard, technical and the sailrs are tops. i don't care about the Olympics and I would like to sail a moth. But I race Stars, because they're hard.

Greg Sieck, WSFB, Crew 8088

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Harrison Hine said...

The best thing about these three classes is that they provide close tactical racing. All the super high performace boats really only have a drag race. Playing shifts and subtle tactical choices have little effect on those boats. It's all about boat speed and becasue the fleet spreads out so much over the race course there is little chance for someone just off the lead to jump back into it. I remember the last race of the 1984 Olympics when Bill Buchan had to win to take the gold. He rounded the last leeward mark in fifth and by superior skill was able to win the race and the gold. In a 49'er that is not possible!
Harrison Hine, STAR LB, 6800 (ret)

At 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't disagree with the comments about technical and physical - so imagine what it would be like in these classes if the sailors also had to support the rig as well. Wait, that sounds like the board sports.

At 5:50 AM, Anonymous Ed Kriese said...

I agree. The Olympics are not the X-Games. It should be hard and take years to get to.

Board Sports are not sailing and should be in the Olympics.

Ed Kriese

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you feel about the arms race in the Star class? Think paying for your crew and 400,000 Euro boats is the right thing?

Having spent the last quad in weight rooms around Europe training, I can tell you that the people in the weight room getting fit were the lasers, finns, 49ers, and windsurfers. For a while there I didn't even know who Tom Slingsby was, to me, he was just the guy I always saw in the gym where ever I was.

Didn't see the Star sailors there, they were off circuit doing other things like pro sailing, no doubt to afford their fibreglass spreaders and booms.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Platt said...

You just named 3 boats that very few people sail. Way more people sail lasers and windsurfers. Way more run marathons and play basketball and soccer. The number of competitors is the key number in what makes something competitive ie supply. The expense and complication of the equipment only reduces the number of competitors and creates barriers to millions of potential sailors and yes the youngsters will win if they are crafty enough.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Dan said...

As a former collegiate wrestler, I found it a terrific base for racing windsurfers. I also found racing windsurfers to be as much "sailing" as racing 420s and Solings. The fact that planing windsurfers travel very fast does spread the fleet, although just how much to the inside of the course must one race in order to participate in a sailing contest?

Olympic windsurfing has offered since 1992 racing in classes compete in planing and displacement modes, with different technique and strategy for each. Since planing allows a higher VMG, athletes work very hard to come onto and maintain a plane. I find this effort to be at least as exhausting as any other form of competition found in the Summer Games, and the fitness levels of Olympic windsurfers tend to bear this out.

Simply because the Star is "hard" to sail speaks nothing about the toughness and skill required to medal in the windsurfer class. Balancing all the forces though one's body while standing on the rail and pumping an entire upwind leg requires years of training. Likewise, jibing the RS:X around a leeward mark in 25 knots and in a crowd is sailing, and it is extremely difficult to do well.

It's a shame that Ed Kriese and others still cling to the antiquated concept that one must sit on one's ass in order to truly sail. That view was rejected by most of the sailing community decades before the windsurfer appeared in the '84 Games. I dare say that the Star, Finn and 470 classes would love to become as relevant to the lives of millions of young athletes as the sports featured in the X-Games. In full disclosure, windsurfing was part of the 1995 X-Games in Newport, RI.

Olympic windsurfing is hard. Windsurfing is sailing. I'd feel greatly disappointed if the selection committee does not include the sailboard events in '16 but I assure you it would never be because windsurfing is viewed as easy or something other than sailing.

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Kevin Burnham said...

I leave it to the current Gold Medalist from China, Nathan Wilmot to sum up the 470 for what it brings to sailing.


Enjoy reading this interview. Nathan just returned home from Miami where he won the Melges 32 regatta as tactician with Morgan Reeser on mainsheet for John Kilroy and the crew of Samba Pa Ti.

Kevin Burnham

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Chris Bulger said...

Wow Craig - pretty confusing piece.

What does "easy to sail" mean in an Olympic context - please name a boat in which it would be easy to beat Dennis Conner or Russell Coutts at the Olympics. It is "easy" to run in cirles - not easy to win the gold in the mile - that's what the Olympics are about.

The Star is a great technical boat - very old technology - and very expensive even by sailing standards let alone Olympic Equipment. What you seem to be saying is that you want sailing to be the sport where "paying dearly" means spending the most money on equipment instead of focusing the challenge on the competitors skills and athleticism.

As a reasonably well-off not-so-fit old guy - I appreciate your support. But you are missing the point of the Olympics and certainly not working to open up sailing.

If we want sailing to fit in at the Olympics, then it is time for boats that attract many very fit and talented athletes like Moths and Kite Boards.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Bruce Spedding said...

If you want difficult, lets introduce the 'door' class, absolutely no sailing characteristics at all, now that would be technically demanding. On the other hand events like the 1500m or marathon running are not particularly technical at all, probably 75% genetic and 20% pure fitness, and yet these are staples of the Olympics. I reiterate what I've said before, if sailing wants to be reactionary then maybe they should be left to themselves, and lets take the board sports, windsurfing, kiteboarding and why not surfing - and make them a separate Olympic discipline. That should make both sides happy and get the old school sailing community off our backs.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Craig Leweck said...

Just to be clear, I was not discounting any of the events, just noting what I considered value in these three highly criticized classes. And to beat DC and Russell in their prime, I contend it would be easier in a simpler boat than in a tehnical boat (though still not easy).

A balance of equipment is likely ideal, particularly when you consider that Lasers, Radials, and boards offer the greatest opportunity for less developed nations to participate. The country count is a vital stat in keeping Sailing in the Olympics.

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Larry Suter said...

Great post on the Olympic Classes. Sailing is an Experience Sport, and is all about balance, getting sails, rig, hull and blades to work together. I have coached all the Olympic Classes, but love working in the Star and 470 the most because of the complexity required to be the best. They are true Olympic Classes.

The Star, 470, and Finn are also the only Olympic Classes to have multiple builders as opposed to the monopolies the rest of the class builders enjoy. We all know that if you have competition, you make money by building a better product. If you have a monopoly, you make money by building a cheaper product, like the Laser masts that are still bending after 40 years, or the 49er hulls that still fall apart, and masts that break (15th revision), etc.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Rob Hahn: said...

I agree with your assessment of the Olympic boat choices. Some important points are often lost in Olympic design choice discussions, namely the fact that a speedy boat type doesn't necessarily improve the racing in a one-design fleet. If it's hard to wring out that last tenth of a knot that puts you on the podium, that's a good thing. I don't pretend to know the difficult politics involved in the Olympic arena, and I'm aware of the concerns regarding drawing young sailors to our sport - I can certainly see that these challenging boats provide fantastic close racing, and that the world's best sailors continue to come out of these well-tested fleets.

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Andy Rice said...

If Larry Suter has “coached all the Olympic classes”, where did he manage to glean his misinformation about the 49er? The 49er started out with four class builders - Vanguard, Bethwaite, Ovington and Mackay. After initially ordering boats from all four builders, the majority of 49er sailors started to home in on Ovington and Mackay as their most favoured suppliers. They voted with their wallets. And so today the class has two high quality, independent builders on opposite sides of the world - Ovington in the UK and Mackay in New Zealand - supplying beautifully built boats.

How exactly does this fit the definition of a ‘monopoly’? A good number of World and Olympic medals have been won by both manufacturers, surely less of a so-called monopoly than the Finn, where the Devoti has dominated major competition for the best part of 20 years.

And then “49er hulls that still fall apart”, Larry? I wasn’t aware they’d even started falling apart. I sailed the class from 1997 to 2004 and never heard of boats falling apart. If I wanted to go club racing in a 49er again, I’d happily buy my original hull, No.248 from 1997, and go racing. And masts that break? Well, yes, they can break, but not all that often. I broke two masts in eight years of sailing, both times due to bouncing the rig on the sea floor. As in most classes, the times when 49er rigs break are usually due to operator error.

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Marc Jacobi said...

Greg Sieck, wrote, "...I would like to sail a moth. But I race Stars, because they're hard."

I challenge Greg (and everyone else) to sail a Moth and not conclude it is "hard, technical and the sailors are tops." The boats are also a total BLAST to sail!

At 11:23 AM, Anonymous Rory Paton said...

I sail an XOD because it's mentally taxing both and it's our local boat, I aspire to sailing a Moth (I'm going to have a go, this year's resolution).

I think to make it (the Olympics) worth watching/winning you need a combination of technical difficulty and big names. The International Moth has both. Whilst bizarrely I'm a fan of the Finn and Star, it's mainly because of the sailors not the boats. The 470 was a good boat 20 years ago perhaps but not that inspirational now.

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Larry Suter said...

Regarding Andy Rice’s note concerning my comments, Webster's definition of Monopoly-"exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action".

While it is true that there are more than one builder of Lasers and 49ers, the world was divided up so that each builder had exclusive areas to sell. If you were in the US you had to order from the US builder. You could get a friend to buy in another country and ship it to you.

Come down to the US Sailing Center in Miami and watch guys gluing their wing tracks, etc. back on or gluing the cheap, plastic sail slots on their new $5,000.00 carbon masts back on each day after sailing (up to rev. #3 after two years).

The old masts used to break after a spinnaker collapse and re-fill. (the tops broke off). I know one team who had to leave a Worlds Champ after three of their masts broke and their credit card was maxed out.

The best was a couple of US Olympic Trials ago when the decree from US Sailing was that everything on the boat was to be measured.

We measured the spreader sweep of the non adjustable aluminum spreaders and found them over 1" out. I asked what had been done the past couple of Worlds? The answer was that the builder had found a cheaper supplier and when they did not measure in, told the class not to measure the spreader sweep at the Worlds!

I think anyone buying sails in the Monopoly Classes will tell you the premium they pay. Official Laser sails are close to $600.00, while the same cloth copies guys use to train with are $150.00, new.

The 49er Worlds in 2001 had 151 boats, in 2008 there were 80 boats, and the 2010 worlds had 62 boats. Compare that to the 2010 470 Worlds that had 180 boats (118 Men, 62 Woman) and the Star in 2010 (in BRA) that had 81 boats (86 boats in 2009, and 104 boats in 2008).


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