London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition - Brief history of Finn Class

1952 podium (Finn Class archive)- London 2012 Olympic Games
The Finn made its first appearance at the Olympic Games back in 1952. That year Paul Elvstrøm won the second of his four Gold medals on his way to setting a record that has, so far, stood for 52 years. More than five decades later Ben Ainslie stands on the brink of breaking that record, as he has broken so many other records in his 10 years in the class. If he does it would be one of the defining moments of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The Finn is the oldest dinghy class that is being used at the 2012 Olympic Games. In fact this year marks its 60th anniversary of includion at the Games and is the 16th time it will be used. Over those 60 years it has modernised and embraced new technologies but is fundamentally the same design.

But to go back to the very beginning...

The Olympics in 1952 were assigned to Helsinki, Finland and the Finish Yachting Association, who had been assigned the job of selecting the class for the Monotype, ran a competition for a new boat designed specifically for the Olympics which could also be used for sailing competitions in Scandinavia. The Finn was selected from a design entered by Swedish Olympian Rickard Sarby. Paul Elvstrøm swept the board to win by nearly 3,000 points from Charles Currey of Great Britain, who took Silver. Elvstrøm won four of the seven races in a fleet of 28 boats and set a standard which has never been equalled. In spite of badly injuring his hand before the sixth race, Sarby just managed to win the Bronze.

Elvstrøm – who won his first Gold medal at the 1948 Olympics in Torbay in the Firefly class – won because of his hiking technique, which he had developed practising in his own boat. Most of his competitors were rather sitting on the sidedeck instead of hiking on the sheer guard. In addition Elvstrøm attached a sort of traveller to his boat, which was not supplied by the organiser. Most competitors considered this alteration to be illegal but the Dane got away with it. However after the fifth race, when it was already for sure that he had won the Gold medal, Elvstrøm removed the device again, in order to calm the grumbles.

The Finn had proved to be such a great competitive boat in the 1952 Olympics that it was retained as the Monotype again for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Again Elvstrøm slaughtered the opposition, this time with five wins in his score. Going into the last race it looked as though the American John Marvin, who had never raced a Finn before, might topple the Belgian Andre Nelis since they were level on points. But Nelis pulled out all the stops and kept Marvin covered whilst notching up a second place himself.

For 1960 in Naples, there was a great increase to 35 Finns and Elvstrøm did it again. This time he only won three races and had to withdraw from the last through illness, but he was never lower than fifth in conditions which did not enable him to gain by his fantastic strength and endurance. This was the year that Russia arrived as a top sailing nation and in the Finns the Silver Medal was won by Alexandr Chuchelov. Nelis of Belgium took Bronze.

In Tokyo, Japan in 1964, for the first time the supplied hulls were fibreglass instead of wood. Germany was the leading nation in the Finn in 1964, and Willy Kuhweide, who was only selected at the last moment and despite a severe infection of the middle ear, led the fleet into the final race. Peter Barrett and Henning Wind stayed close to each other during that race and finished seventh and 10th, allowing Kuhweide to once again take line honours and Gold.

1968 fleet finn-class-archive - London 2012 Olympic Games

The 1968 Games were in Mexico with the sailing at Acapulco. Some picked Wind, who had just won the Finn Gold Cup while others favoured Kuhweide or Jörg Bruder, the Brazilian who had won the Pan American Games. Few felt that Valentin Mankin, the veteran Russian Finn sailor and an excellent heavy weather helmsman, had much of a chance in the light weather so typical of Acapulco. But Mankin surprised everyone with a week of almost flawless tactical racing. Never below seventh at any mark, he beat Hubert Raudaschl of Austria by almost 42 points. Fabio Albarelli of Italy won the Bronze.

Synonymous with strong winds and heavy weather sailing, no one was prepared for two weeks of mild weather and light winds at the 1972 Olympics in Kiel, Germany. Before the Olympics there was a controversy about the masts supplied by the organiser. Most of the competitors favoured the old wooden masts, which they were used to, and only a few had experience with the new aluminium masts they were forced to use. The competition ended with some big names down the scoreboard. Serge Maury of France won the Gold while Elias Hatzipavlis from Greece got Silver and Victor Potapov from Russia Bronze. The decisive race was the fifth, when only three boats finished within the time limit.

There was another change for the 1976 Olympics in Kingston, Ontario. As usual, the organisers supplied the hulls, but for the first time the sailors were allowed to bring their own sails and masts. Not until the weather mark of the last race was it clear where the medals would go. First around was Jochen Schümann from the German Democratic Republic with a tenacious cover on Andrei Balashov of the Soviet Union. Australian John Bertrand, the other contender for the gold was a distant 12th. Although later passed by two boats, Schümann finished ahead of the Russian and the Australian to assure his win. As striking as Schümann's excellent performance was the poor showing of the pre-race favourites, David Howlett of England and Serge Maury of France.

The 1980 Olympics in Moscow, with the yachting events in Tallinn suffered from the boycott initiated by the United States. A number of potential winners were excluded from the start. Some of those who came, felt uncomfortable within the narrow limits of the strict organisation and performed poorly. The favourites: Jochen Schümann, Mark Neeleman, Lasse Hjortnäs, and Minski Fabris failed to collect the medals. Outsiders like Esko Rechardt took Gold and Wolfgang Mayrhofer the Silver in front of the only successful favourite Andrei Balashov, who won Bronze.

The Games suffered once again from a boycott at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, this time initiated by the USSR. So in Long Beach the favourites from the DDR, Poland and the USSR were excluded. In the Finn class the actual Olympic sailing was preceded by an undignified controversy after the US trials. John Bertrand was declared the representative only 24 hours before the first start. In that race he had a collision with the later Gold medal winner Russell Coutts from New Zealand and was disqualified. Disregarding the mental strain of the qualification battle and the disqualification in the first race, Bertrand was leading after the fifth and sixth race. In the last race however, he lost the Gold to Coutts, and Terry Neilson from Canada won the Bronze.

1988 finn-class-archive - London 2012 Olympic Games

The 1988 Olympic Regatta was held in the Bay of Pusan in Korea. The final winner, José Luis Doreste, who had competed in both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics was disqualified in race 4 for a collision. The Silver medalist Peter Holmberg was PMS in race 4 and one of the favourites Lasse Hjortnäs broke his mast in race two after winning the first race. These events really opened up the racing. Eventually John Cutler won the last two races to take the Bronze. Larry Lemieux gave up a good position in the fifth race to rescue two Singapore 470 sailors from the water after one had lost contact with his boat and was awarded Pierre de Coubertin Medal for Sportsmanship for this feat. Once again the sailors had to use boats that were provided by the organisers.

Barcelona, Spain produced generally light to moderate conditions for the 1992 Olympics. The Finn fleet was the deepest ever and it was generally agreed that anyone in the first 15 could win the Gold and anyone of the first 22 could win a race. The final winner José Maria van der Ploeg never scored worse than sixth and didn't have to sail the final race. The two favourites Eric Mergenthaler and Glenn Bourke performed poorly and finished 18th and 20th. Brian Ledbetter was one of the few consistent sailors and won the Silver medal, while Craig Monk, from New Zealand, won the last race to snatch the bronze away from Stuart Childerley. Prior to the regatta, the IFA conducted a two week training clinic for those countries desiring assistance.

1996 pic-francois richard - London 2012 Olympic Games
Francois Richard ©

When the numerically stronger Laser was bidding for Olympic status many thought that it would replace the Finn as the Olympic singlehander for men. However this was not to be and in 1996 in Savannah there were two singlehanded dinghies for men. This worked well, as it meant that there was two boats for two different weight categories. The advance weather reports suggested a light wind regatta. However, this was not to be and thunderstorm activity resulted in some spectacular weather and strong winds. Poland's first ever sailing medal was won by Mateusz Kusznierewicz with a race to spare, and this in spite of losing his watch early on in the series and using the clock on the starting boat instead. Sebastien Godefroid from Belgium took the Silver while relative Olympic veteran Roy Heiner took the Bronze on the last race.

In Sydney, Australia in 2000, Iain Percy won the first medal for Great Britain in the class since Charles Currey's Silver in 1952. Sailing a very consistent series he had it all wrapped up before the final race. Luca Devoti's Silver was one of the most unexpected medals of the Games, while Fredrik Lööf's bronze had been a long time coming. For the first time ever the sailors had been allowed to bring their own hulls as well as rigs. Also of importance to the Finn sailors of the future, Ben Ainslie won his first Olympic Gold medal in the Laser class. Two years later he announced his switch to the Finn, where he has dominated for the last 10 years.

Ainslie started the 2004 Olympics in Athens with a low score and a disqualification after being protested for a port-starboard incident, but fought back with a string of top results to make a remarkable comeback. He led into the final race and stuck to Silver medalist Rafael Trujillo to assure his second Gold medal. Mateusz Kusznierewicz picked up his second Finn medal after winning the final race and taking Bronze.

2008 pic-francois richard - London 2012 Olympic Games
Francois Richard ©

In 2008 in Qingdao, China, Ainslie won his third Olympic Gold after winning three races in generally very light winds and very strong tides. He also won the medal race in very strong winds, the first time that format had been used at the Olympics. Zach Railey was the surprise Silver medal winner but didn't win a single race and neither did Guillaume Florent, who took the Bronze away from Daniel Birgmark on the medal race result, both sailors ending up with the same points.

Up to 1948 the type of boat used as the Monotype or singlehander was changed for each Olympic Games. With the introduction of the Finn in 1952 this problem was solved. The Finn was designed as an Olympic singlehander that could be sailed worldwide and aspiring Olympic sailors could practice and develop the required skills prior to the games. It has established strict class rules and regulations and because of this has proven to be a true Olympic class reflecting the Olympic spirit. The class inspires intense devotion from sailors and fans across the world. The Finn is a modern racing machine, a highly evolved piece of kit with an outstanding tradition and an amazing culture. It has become a supreme ambassador for all that is great about Olympic sailing and has evolved into a modern classic that has produced some of the world's best sailors.

Much more on the Finn can be found in the anniversary book, Photo FINNish, available here, and through the class website.

Past medalists
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Year and venueGoldSilverBronze
1952, Helsinki, FinlandPaul Elvstrøm, DenmarkCharles Currey, Great BritainRickard Sarby, Sweden
1956, Melbourne, AustraliaPaul Elvstrøm, DenmarkAndré Nelis, BelgiumJohn Marvin, United States
1960, Naples, ItalyPaul Elvstrøm, DenmarkAlexandr Chuchelov, USSRAndré Nelis, Belgium
1964, Enoshima, JapanWilly Kuhweide, GermanyPeter Barrett, United StatesHenning Wind, Denmark
1968, Acapulco, MexicoValentin Mankin, USSRHubert Raudaschl, AustriaFabio Albarelli, Italy
1972, Kiel, West GermanySerge Maury, FranceElias Hatzipavlis, GreeceVictor Potapov, USSR
1976, Kingston, CanadaJochen Schumann, DDRAndrei Balashov, USSRJohn Bertrand, Australia
1980, Tallinn, USSREsko Rechardt, FinlandWolfgang Mayrhofer, AustriaAndrei Balashov, USSR
1984, Long Beach, USARussell Coutts, New ZealandJohn Bertrand, United StatesTerry Neilson, Canada
1988, Pusan, KoreaJose Luis Doreste, SpainPeter Holmberg, US Virgin IslandsJohn Cutler, New Zealand
1992, Barcelona, SpainJosé Maria van der Ploeg, SpainBrian Ledbetter, USACraig Monk, New Zealand
1996, Savannah, USAMateusz Kusnierewicz, PolandSebastien Godefroid, BelgiumRoy Heiner, Nertherlands
2000, Sydney, AustraliaIain Percy, Great BritainLuca Devoti, ItalyFredrik Lööf, Sweden
2004, Athens, GreeceBen Ainslie, Great BritainRafael Trujillo, SpainMateusz Kusznierewicz, Poland
2008, Qingdao, ChinaBen Ainslie, Great BritainZach Railey, USAGuillaume Florent, France

Finn Class Association website

*This text has been edited, abridged and amended from an article by David Leach, Richard Creagh-Osborne, Georg Siebeck and Robert Deaves and originally published in FINNLOG and FINNatics by the International Finn Association.