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2024 Olympics: The Culling of the Men - a View from the Boatpark

by Richard Gladwell/ 17 Feb 16:54 PST 18 February 2019
The clock is counting down for the Finn class and Men above 85kg for further Olympic Sailing events © Richard Gladwell

The 2024 Sailing Olympics are over five years away for the panjandrums of World Sailing, but for 85+kg Men, the Regatta is now in a much more urgent focus.

Over the next few months and maybe year, the Olympic representatives will be chosen for the ten events to be sailed at Enioshima, Japan.

Amongst the countries expected to top the Olympic medal table, there is a strong argument that they chose early, and allow the selected sailors to focus on their Olympic performance, and physical preparation on the specifics of Enoshima, without being left to hang for months on the Selection tenterhooks.

Once those choices are made, those not selected have some difficult decisions to make with seven of the ten current Olympic classes up for review/change - and probably in the next six-eight months.

If you sail the 49er, 49erFX or Nacra 17, classes - then sleep easily, there will be no change.

But for the rest - Laser, Laser Radial, RS:X M&W, Finn and 470 the course ahead is very unclear - and that is aside from the issue of having a substantial personal investment in multiple boats for an Olympic program event which will soon be made defunct.

First of these is the Finn class which World Sailing has put on the skids for the 2024 Olympics - using its slot for a Mixed Two-Person Offshore Keelboat event.

At the Symonite World OK Dinghy Championships, last week several past Olympians were competing, along with those embarking on Olympic sailing careers, and also some who are also high-performance coaches with current Olympic sailors.

"I think the Finn will end up being a class like this. There are already many more sailing at a masters level than there are Olympic sailors," says Dan Slater, the new World OK Dinghy Champion and three times Olympic Representative in the 49er and Finn, and a top international sailing coach.

"As far as new boats sold in the Finn class, it is 50/50 Olympic and Masters sailors."

"The real question is what is going to happen in the next 10-15 years - and we just don't know that."

"It will be interesting to see what World Sailing's long-term strategy is - nobody seems to know what it is - it is just that some decisions have been made.

"Most of the MNA's have been head down and hidden from it all. They aren't coming out and saying here's why we voted for an offshore keelboat."

"And I don't think too many of them can actually afford the decision they've made."

"If you look at a keelboat program, it is a million dollars, off the bat - before you've done a regatta. In fact, you wouldn't do a regatta. You'd just go and set up off Marseille, sail to every possible island in the vicinity of the coast. You'd be two-boating with coaches in attendance. You'd have to be based there because come the Olympic Regatta you just have to know that piece of water inside out."

(A nearby competitor/coach points out that an Olympic campaign in the Star keelboat cost a million dollars and says the offshore keelboat campaign would be nearer $2million.)

No Progression Path

A common theme at the regatta amongst the former Olympic sailors and those in the pre-start phase of what should have been Olympic careers, is complete bewilderment at the Olympic course that World Sailing has set for 2024 and beyond.

"They seem to be just trying to re-invent yachting, says Leith Armit, a four-time OK Class World champion, who placed second in his first World Championship at the age of 17years old, and attended two Olympics as a reserve/training partner in the Finn singlehander. Renowned as a tough, hard sailor, Armit started his Finn career sailing an old Newport Finn that sank after a capsize in the Rangitoto Channel, and was recovered two weeks later after snagging a fisherman's anchor. She had the gelcoat "sanded" off half her hull after a fortnight of sailing back and forth with the tidal flows.

"Why can't they just make Yachting a lot better in the media with the use of drones for video coverage," the senior Armit asks? "They can take the America's Cup, which the average person doesn't know anything about, and can now follow. So why not do the same for Olympic yachting with improved video and commentary?"

His son Josh, the current Youth World Champion, competed in the Symonite OK Worlds, also at the age of 17yrs - placing third overall and winning two races. He was fresh off the plane from the Sailing World Cup Miami and an indifferent series at the Florida Regatta.

At 17years old, over 6ft 2" and 80kgs, the still relatively slightly built Josh Armit has the physique similar to Olympic and America's Cup champion, Peter Burling and could succeed at several events on the current Olympic calendar - his options being the Laser, the Finn (with a heavier body weight), the 49er, and maybe the Nacra multihull.

Burling had a lighter body-weight when he was 17 yrs old and first competed in the 470 class in the 2008 Olympics before he filled out a little more and could switch to the 49er.

Offshore Keelboat of little interest

Josh Armit's 2024 Olympic issue will be his body-weight and being able to stay under 83kgs reckoned to be the maximum male weight able to compete in the classes proposed for Male/Mixed in the Marseille Olympic regatta.

"I'm still growing," says Josh Armit, stating the obvious.

"The average size of the male population is getting bigger," he adds. "With the 2024 Olympics, there is nothing for the average sized male - especially with the Finn gone."

He dismisses the Mixed Offshore Keelboat as an option - an interesting comment from the perspective that his grandfather, Tony Armit, was the first New Zealander to sail around the world back in the 1950's (sailing two-handed).

"There's not any week in week out racing for a class like that in New Zealand," he says. "It's a brand new event that hasn't been sailed at the Olympics before."

"What I can't understand is why the keelboats are always chucked out of the Olympics, on the basis that they are too expensive", says Leith. "Now they are looking at putting an expensive keelboat back in again - it doesn't make sense to me. What is the priority? Clearly, they don't care about the cost of the new keelboat."

High churn rate

Looking at the lineup of Olympic keelboats which have come and gone in the past 50 years, starting with the Dragon, 5.5 metre, Tempest, Soling, Yngling and Elliott 6, the reason for Leith Armit's frustration is apparent.

"It's hard to understand why they aren't still around."

"For a youth sailor moving into the Olympics it is had to know what your options are," Josh says. "What is the pathway now to the Olympics? How do we prepare, not knowing with any certainty as to which classes are going to be at the Olympics? It makes it very tricky to decide."

"The decision-making needs to be made far enough out so that people in the class can sail it for more than four years - maybe six or eight. For sure some champions will jump into the class, but we need to see a depth of competition. A few years ago that was what was happening, and the Olympic sport was the pinnacle for sailors because they had put so much into competing in that class."

When it is pointed out, that is what World Sailing's Regulations actually require, Leith Armit asks "so why is it [Mixed Two Offshore Keelboat] going in ?'

That's about all the Armits will say on the record, however with the audio turned off, their frustrations boil over with the 2024 Olympic events decisions. There's clearly some deep-seated feeling and frustration.

The case for Olympic heritage

"We need to keep the historic sailing into the Olympics somehow," says Freddie Loof who had a 20 year Olympic spanning two classes - the Finn and the Star - medalling in both. He bowed out of the Olympics on a high note winning the Gold medal in Weymouth in 2012.

"With the drones and new cameras we can make it really interesting. It looks awesome, and fans can really understand the sport."

"I'm going to keep sailing in the Star Sailors League," he says. "It sounds harsh to say, but suddenly that last Gold medal in the Star class has become even more legendary", he adds with a laugh.

"So it will be a big question in the Finn as to who is going to win the last one [Gold medal]. Maybe it will be Sweden again!" A reference to his former crew Max Salminen.

Salminen sailed with Loof in the Star at Weymouth, he switched to the Finn for the 2016 Olympics representing Sweden in Rio. He won the Finn Gold Cup in 2017, and placed second at the World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark in 2018. But in 18 months the 30year old's Olympic career will also be over.

No change in the class progression

Dan Slater won the World Sailing Youth championship sailed in the standard rig Laser in 1994. He followed a line of winners that began with Olympic Gold medalist in the Finn class Russell Coutts and continued with Volvo Ocean Race winner Stu Bannatyne, and America's Cup helmsman Dean Barker. Like Barker and Josh Armit, Dan Slater is a long-time member of the Murrays Bay Sailing Club,

"There was a path set out for him, and there was a path set out for a lot of guys ahead of him and following behind him as well", says Slater.

"That's the hard thing for all the youth guys. That path is not going to change for youth sailing.

"If you want to go to a Youth Worlds, that path is not going to change - you have to sail a [Laser] Radial, or a 20er or a 420", he emphasises.

"That pathway is now broken. We have to be careful that we don't dilute the sport."

"There are a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened to windsurfing in the 1980s when there were 300 boards in just about every country. Then the boards got more and more diluted, with the new shapes of foils plus all the changes and innovations, that came into the market. Everyone just dispersed and dispersed until there was nothing left."

Some free advice

As a coach what would Slater tell people in Josh Armit's situation?

"Good sailors sail well in anything. Good sailors will do well in any class. Look at the top Olympians who have done well and won medals, a lot of them have done it in multiple classes. Good sailors will adapt. For someone like Josh, he's got to get his experience up, and tagging along behind the Sam Meech and Thomas Saunders (Yachting NZ) program right now - you're only going to better."

"You just go out every day with them you are going to better."

"He is a gifted sailor. At the end of 2020, he has to be the best sailor that he possibly can be."

"If his body weight allows him, which might be a bit of a push, so he could do the 2024 Olympics in a Laser. That would be great - it would be great for New Zealand. But if it doesn't - he might have to look at crewing for someone on a 49er."

That's assuming he doesn't add another 3kg of bodyweight in the next couple of years, stepping over the perceived upper weight limit of 83-85kgs for the 2024 Olympic Equipment [classes].

"None of the boats they are proposing for the singlehander are going to push the sailors weight up - the hull volumes just won't take any more weight," he explains.

"If World Sailing don't choose the Laser and opt for one of the other one-person classes, as soon as the sailors get developed and pushed hard, the optimum body weight will drop by up to 10kgs, and the lighter weight sailors will become more athletic and learn how to sail above their weight in a breeze."

The point he is making is that making, is that as the Olympic classes mature, the coaches and sailors devise a technique that will allow the lighter sailors to compete with the heavier bodyweights (and righting moment upwind), and the optimum sailing weight for the class drops more than can be achieved safely by careful diet.

"It's a shame, a real shame", Slater says. "I don't think anyone has thought it out too much and what the consequences of these decisions will be."

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