In the sailing events of the Olympic Games there are now eight different types of boat sailed. These are a sailboard (the IMCO one-design), three types of single handed dinghy (the Europe, Finn and Laser), one double-handed dinghy (the 470), a high-performance dinghy (the 49-er), a multihull (the Tornado), and a keelboat (the Soling).
Which boats are sailed in the Olympic competitions tends to be highly political, as there are always a large number of class associations pushing their credentials.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists on classifying all the events as 'disciplines' rather than as classes, following the collective mind-set orientated towards athletics, where the focus is on the activity rather than the equipment. The IOC deems, all events are either for men, for women or are 'open', so what sailors regard as the Soling Class competition is, to the IOC, 'Keelboat, three-person, open, fleet and match-racing'.
Sailors, try to choose boats that are popular and give good competition in many parts of the world where the idea has traditionally been to encompass the broad spectrum of yachting competition, where in recent years the emphasis on the single handed smaller boats. As the Olympic movement is extremely conservative, there is fierce resistance to change the Olympic boat classes primarily, because of the ongoing investment in equipment and training.
Well established class representation tends to wield a lot of power within the governing body of sailing, the International Sailing Federation, and thwart progressive ideas. It called for a major push within the federation to introduce the new 49-er dinghy in time for the 2000 Olympics, especially as it displaced the Star, a two-person keelboat, which had been and Olympic boat class since 1932.
The disciplines and the sail boats used for the Olympics are as follows
As seen from this list that three classes are reserved for men, three are reserved for women and three are 'open', with the chances of a woman sailing competitively in the Laser, Tornado or Soling being remote. With five of the ten classes being single handed, the sailboards, the Finns and the Lasers provide a means of increasing participation and fairness, may also be the case with the 49-er.
Sailing in the Olympics represents the peak of achievement for a dinghy sailor and requires a nonstop four year training programme. Prior to this, gifted amateurs could sail in a few trial races and end up representing their country. The attributes these days require the highest levels of skill and fitness, a flawless knowledge of the racing rules along with an exceptionally good awareness of the weather conditions.
The Olympic regatta influences club sailing as it is the tendency of regatta organizers to use 'Olympic courses' and score using 'Olympic points'. The course was based on a triangle that presented the competitors with the race start and finish to windward with a series of beating, reaching and running legs. From 1996 onward, the trend has been for a larger number of shorter races over a trapezoidal course, with more prominence on beating and running and a reaching finish.
People feel the Olympics has an excessive influence on sailing as a whole, especially with the top nations devoting a high proportion of their training towards the pursuit of medals. If the Olympics were not in existence it would be necessary to invent such a competition as any sport tends to be aimless without an international competitive vehicle.
With the need to make the Olympic regatta able to be followed by TV viewers, the IOC developed a competition where the gold medal was decided in the final race. This was achieved by investing a hybrid fleet and matching-racing regatta which similar to that for the Soling Class. After sailing a series of normal races, the top twelve teams go into a match-racing tournament.
The 49-er, a thrilling new Australian designed two-person skiff, in the tradition of the Sydney Harbour 18-foot skiffs, providing some spectacular racing when the breeze is fresh. The sailors need to be athletic in contrast to competitors who sail heavy dinghies as the Finn, which are exhausting to sail but sedentary in nature.
It is extraordinary that the Finn is still an olympic boat class, because it overlaps the more interesting Laser. The Laser at the Atlanta Olympics, provided the closest and exciting competition, showing itself to be an ideal olympic boat class because each boat in the fleet was identical and the difference in performance was result of the skill of the sailors.
The first ever Olympic medal won by Hong Kong was in the women's sailboard class at Atlanta. The popularity and relatively low cost of this new form of sailing has been successful in introducing new competitors to the sport who are not from one of the traditional yachting nations.
The Tornado catamaran is the exact opposite, where competing is expensive in the acquisition and campaigning and requires a lot of background technical knowledge.
It would be hopeless for anyone embarking on a Tornado Olympic campaign unless they had access to a top-class sail maker with class experience and there were other competitive Tornados in country to train against.