Since 1896, there have been four dozen Olympic sailing classes. Over time, the Olympics dropped classes for economic, political, logistical or technological reasons, but since the 1970s, the main reason for changing classes has been gender inequality—a shortcoming that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been trying to correct for the past 40 years.
Until 1980, Olympic sailing was a gender-neutral, open sport where male and female sailors competed together. Despite that fact, for the first 80 years of competition, the great majority of Olympic sailors were men. There were several female sailors in the 1900 Olympics (one of whom became the first female to win gold in any Olympic sport), and there were others in subsequent Olympics, but women were always grossly outnumbered. A lot of that had to do with boat selection, plain old sexism and a failure to create female-only or mixed classes.
In 1988, World Sailing, the international body that selects the classes and equipment for the IOC, finally started to address the gender inequality problem with the first female-only competition in the 470. World Sailing continued to drop and add classes until it reached near-complete gender equality for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That year, there were four female-only classes (RS:X windsurfer, Laser Radial, 470 and 49erFX), five male-only classes (RS:X windsurfer, Laser, Finn, 470 and 49er) and one mixed class, the Nacra 17 multihull. That will also be the lineup for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but it still leaves women with one fewer class to sail in than the men.
So, in November, in an attempt to reach total gender parity for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, World Sailing changed the lineup again. It voted to add a mixed two-person dinghy, a mixed two-person offshore keelboat and a mixed foiling kite event. It has not chosen specific equipment for those three new categories, but it did vote to kill the Finn class and the men’s and women’s 470 classes.
Killing the Finn might look like the right decision. It’s the oldest remaining Olympic sailing class, and the boat is not a good fit for women. In 2009, a study found that the average weight for a top-50 world-ranked Finn sailor was 209 pounds.
But by killing the Finn, World Sailing may have created a new problem. Other than switching to the new two-person offshore keelboat, the decision leaves men who weigh too much for the Laser, a design that can’t competitively handle more than a 183-pound sailor, without a boat for the 2024 Olympics.
World Sailing’s decision may close the door on people like Caleb Paine, who won bronze in the Finn at the Rio Olympics and is campaigning for Tokyo. Paine outgrew Lasers years ago, as did his former racing partner Zach Railey, who won silver in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing. Both men are well over 200 pounds.
“Zach Railey is built like a tractor,” says Glenn Selvin, the North American Finn Class treasurer who races against Railey and Paine in California. “Where are guys like that gonna go? Caleb is in his 20s. He is not Laser size. To ask him to switch to an undesigned two-person keelboat seems stupid.”
With the world’s weight trend constantly going toward taller and heavier people, removing the Finn could deny a lot of world-class sailors the opportunity to prove their worth on the Olympic stage. That’s not the way it ought to be. The Olympic sailing competition should include all the best sailors, regardless of gender or size.
It will be interesting to see what other equipment World Sailing will pick for 2024. The panel better hurry up if they want the best of the big sailors to make it to the starting line.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.