OLD HAND : To Elvstrom, Sailing Is Worth Gold, Not 12-Meter Glitz

Times Staff Writer

Paul Elvstrom and Dennis Conner both will be sailing catamarans next month, but that's about all they have in common.

The world's two best-known sailors remain an ocean apart, in philosophy as well as geography.

While Conner is defending the America's Cup against New Zealand, Elvstrom will be at Pusan, South Korea, preparing to compete in his eighth--and last, he says--Olympics.

Elvstrom, of Denmark, finds the America's Cup boring, considers a race between a catamaran and a monohull a joke and has no taste for the politics or the glitz that go with America's Cup sailing.

Even his enthusiasm for Olympic competition has ebbed. One of Denmark's national treasures, he has won four gold medals. But now, at 60, his competitive fires burn low.

"I would like to race well because it will be my last Olympics," he said from Copenhagen. "That's for sure. But I'm not so optimistic. I'm working hard, but I have not proved to be fast this year. I would like to have the answer."

Then, with a sigh, he added that he thinks he knows the answer.

"I really feel I'm 60 years old," Elvstrom said. "And it's the toughest, fastest class I'm in, where you need power and fast reactions. And there I feel I'm too old."

After sitting out the 1976 and '80 Games, Elvstrom started sailing a catamaran for fun and got excited about competing again. He returned at Long Beach in '84 to sail a Tornado with his youngest daughter, 26-year-old Trine.

If they had placed fourth instead of fifth in the final race, they would have won the bronze medal. But he claims that near miss never bothered him.

"No, never," he said. "We had a good time."

Now, he has no desire even to switch to a class less physically demanding.

"I've done all the other classes, and it doesn't interest me," he said. "I cannot do what I did 20 or 30 years ago."

How about 40?

Elvstrom won the first of his four straight golds in the Finn class at the London Olympics in '48, taking the last two races to beat out Ralph Evans of the United States.

At Tokyo in '64 he semi-retired to be the Danes' coach and alternate. "I didn't want to compete, but I felt it was worse to watch."

So he returned in a two-man Star at Acapulco in '68, placing fourth, and brought a three-man Soling to Kiel in '72, only to succumb to the pressures of his foundering boat and sail-making businesses at home and the aggressive hounding of his rivals on the water.

"I had a nervous breakdown," he said.

He also packed up his boat and went home.

Then followed his one, bitter America's Cup experience with the French ballpoint pen tycoon, Baron Bich, who blamed Elvstrom when the 12-meter, France, sank in a North Sea gale. Bich also had not approved of Elvstrom's hiring an all-Scandinavian crew to sail a French boat.

Elvstrom maintained that mixing in French crewmen "wouldn't be a good team because of the language problem."

But Bich also kept getting reports that Elvstrom would suffer Capt. Queeg-type breakdowns under pressure. He turned the boat over to French skipper Jean-Marie le Guillou, who had been Elvstrom's foremost antagonist at Kiel.

It may say something about Elvstrom that his greatest success has been achieved in small boats, with few or none in his crew--in recent years, only his daughter--to deal with.

"I'm not fond of 12-meters," he said. "It's an old design. I hope the America's Cup will go to catamarans. I really hope that, because I found the 12-meters so old and slow and heavy, and too many people on board.

"I would also like to see the America's Cup change to a three-boat, all-team racing--two teams, three boats on each team. A match race for two boats is, for me, boring, very boring."

The nearest the paths of Elvstrom and Conner have come to crossing in recent years was at Fremantle, Australia, during the '86-'87 America's Cup regatta. Elvstrom was there to compete in the Australian national Tornado championships.

"I said to Trine, 'Let's go out and watch the 12-meters.' We were in the middle of the two races. I know where to stay without disturbing anyone, and when I came out, a power boat was sailing after me and I could see it was the police boat. So I beared off to a close reach, so he couldn't catch me. Then I saw in the newspaper the next day that I could have a fine of $50,000."

Elvstrom was not fined, nor did he indicate any further interest in the event.

"It doesn't interest me," he said. "The competition is not hard enough. The hard competition is in the Olympic classes. The 12-meter, that's a big show, just a big show. You need a lot of money. Who can afford and organize all this?

"It's just different companies fighting against each other, and they do it not in the sporting way. They try to keep top secret what they are doing, and that's not the way real yachtsmen are sailing. We like to be open and have good competition in one-design classes (in which) the chap who is best on the water will be the winner, not (who is best) on a designing board."

Elvstrom thinks this America's Cup will be even more boring than usual.

"The catamaran should be a sure winner," he said. "They will (need) only two races (in the best-of-three series)."

Hans-Kurt Andersen, an international yacht racing judge from Denmark, is one of Elvstrom's closest friends. They confer often on the rules that are so sacred to Elvstrom's sense of sportsmanship. Elvstrom hasn't popped a protest flag during a race in years.

"He takes the rules as a kind of defense," Andersen said. "When he is on starboard and somebody fouls him and he has to duck, he just tells the other guy, 'You owe me one.' He keeps a record of who owes him one."

Elvstrom said: "If I make a mistake, I leave the course."

But he can't always avoid the protest room. Two years ago at a regatta in Holland he was protested, by a Frenchman.

"I won," Elvstrom said, enjoying a small measure of revenge against a country he figured owed him one.

For his positive influence on sailing, Andersen wishes Elvstrom could go on forever.

"He's fantastic. The way he sailed in 1984, only a fraction of a point from a bronze medal, and doing it with his daughter, is one of the best efforts ever for yachting. At the age of 60 now, to be able to compete at a high level, and doing it with his daughter is marvelous."

Andersen says that these days Elvstrom is relaxed, but that it wasn't always that way.

"We are only 5 million people in Denmark," said Andersen, "and sometimes, I'm sorry to say, the press puts a little too much pressure on him by saying, 'Of course, he will win.'

"In the beginning, he was very shy and didn't come forward when he was face to face with a journalist. He didn't talk too much. These days he's a little more open."

Andersen also said Elvstrom was responsible for popularizing a training regimen for yachting competitors.

"He had a bench where he was hanging for several hours in the hiking-out position, the same way he would sit on the boat with his feet underneath some kind of strap. He had his breakfast down there.

"He really trained his body before he went into competition. He showed that physical strength and training are very important to sailing."

But sailing wasn't always good to Elvstrom, who broke away from the Olympics in '72 because of the pressure and the way the other competitors sailed against him, according to Andersen.

"He has had some tough times in his life," Andersen said. "It was so unfair what was going on, in his opinion. But he came out of that and gave the rest of the world a picture of a true sportsman."

Elvstrom didn't have to qualify for the Danish team.

"We have very few Tornadoes, and he is far beyond anybody else," Andersen said. "He is so well known to our Olympic committee that he was nominated long before anybody else."

Nobody complained.

"What he has accomplished already, there's only a little he can add by winning a medal," Andersen said. "The important thing is that he is still able to participate at that level. I think it would be marvelous if he were able to win a medal--and Trine deserves it because she hasn't won an Olympic medal."

Elvstrom said he isn't sure how much sailing he will continue to do.

"I will make that decision after the Olympics," he said. "I love cruising. I hope to do a lot of cruising with my wife."

Dave Perry, the U.S. rules expert who has won two Congressional Cups and narrowly missed a berth in the '84 Olympics, said Elvstrom will be missed far beyond Denmark.

"He's a folk hero in the sport," Perry said. "He was an inspiration to our Olympic effort, more than anyone ever knew."

Perry said that Elvstrom also heavily influenced his own view of the rules--that they shouldn't be used to gain an advantage but to know how to play fair.

"It's a bigger challenge to sail your boat better around the course than to win on a protest," Perry said.

Elvstrom agrees.

"The racing rules are very good, but we have to use them in the right spirit," he said. "If somebody has a little bad luck or is a little clumsy, give him a smile. That's much better, because he's not happy. And when you go to a protest, I don't like to see a confrontation against someone who doesn't tell the true story. I don't like to see friends do things like that. So it's better not to have any protests."

Elvstrom hopes that that spirit, not his four gold medals, will be his sailing legacy.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°