Paul Elvstrøm, an inspirational giant in the sport of sailing throughout the second half of the 20th century, has died at the age of 88. He was one of sailing’s most prolific innovators, often driven by a relentless desire for success, and leaves a legacy that continues to impact everyone who sails today.
1. Olympic and world championship successes
Elvstrøm won his first Olympic gold medal in the Firefly class in 1948, at the start of an Olympic sailing career that would span an impressive 40 years. The next three Games saw the Danish sailor win gold in the Finn class, becoming the first person in any discipline to win successive gold medals at four Olympics. His gold medal record has yet to be surpassed in sailing, although Sir Ben Ainslie finally bettered Paul Elvstrøm’s overall medal haul in 2012, thanks to the Briton’s silver medal in 1996.
By the mid 1960s Elvstrøm had switched to the Star keelboat class, winning the 1966 and 1967 world championships, but slipped to a disappointing fourth place at the Mexico City Games the following year. He then switched to the Soling in 1972, skipped the next two events and returned to Olympic sailing in the Tornado catamaran at Los Angeles in 1984, finishing fourth at the age of 56, and at Seoul in 1988.
Across all disciplines only three other athletes have competed at more Olympics than Elvstrøm. However, his achievements were not limited to this arena – in total he won 11 world championship titles in seven classes.
2. The importance of training
Although Elvstrøm was a naturally talented sailor, he was quick to recognize that superior strength and technique would give him an important edge over his competitors.
Early in his career he realised that more efficient use of body weight to keep the boat flat in stronger winds could provide a big advantage. As well as setting up efficient hiking strap systems in his boat, he built a training rig at home that enabled him to build the muscles needed to hike hard, with his entire body above the knees outside the boat, for extended periods.
3. Efficient self-bailers
Most of the boats Elvstrøm raced didn’t have the benefit of the open transom of today’s designs, so water that collected in the cockpit had to be bailed out. The early self-bailers were easily damaged if the boat ran aground or hit an obstruction, and would quickly flood the boat when the boat slowed. Elvstrøm’s design solved both these problems and remains in production today.
4. Buoyancy vests
Back when Elvstrøm started competing, life vests were bulky items that restricted movement. Recognizing this as a hindrance he set about designing a sleeker and more contoured alternative, the first of many steps towards today’s body-hugging buoyancy aids.
5. Sail design and construction
In the early 1950s sails were still made of cotton, often with a panel layout that was more akin to those of working boats than the needs of the racing community. Elvstrøm therefore sourced the best fabric he could find and set about experimenting with different panel layouts, with the aim of improving sail shape.
It was not long before his competitors started to persuade him to make sails for their boats, and before long demand for his sails grew exponentially. This business continued to innovate with the availability of new materials and grew rapidly into one of the largest lofts in Europe.
He became an authority on the racing rules of sailing, having studiously analyzed them in the hope of gaining tactical advantages. Elvstrøm shared this knowledge in his interpretations of the rules. These were first published in the 1960s and remain an important reference for today’s sailors.
7. Breaking down stereotypes
Despite – or maybe because of – his many successes, Elvstrøm struggled repeatedly with mental health problems. This was a key reason he retired from Olympic sailing after 1960, having succumbed to the constant stress and pressure from being expected to win.
Nevertheless he rediscovered his joy of competitive sailing, and went on to race in both the 1968 and 1972 Games, before another breakdown in the early 1970s. Having recovered from that he started sailing again in the Tornado catamaran class, this time with his youngest daughter, Trine. Despite his age – 56 – and that Trine was the only woman sailing in the class, they won the European championship and qualified for the 1984 Olympics, where they finished fourth. They also qualified for the 1988 Games, meaning Elvstrøm competed as an athlete at an astounding eight Olympics. They remain the only father/daughter team that has ever competed in an Olympic event.
8. Fair play
Perhaps the most famous quote attributed to Elvstrøm is: “You haven't won if, in doing so, you have lost the respect of your competitors.” This speaks volumes about the man and the standards he set for himself, and remains an important adage throughout the sporting world.
Elvstrøm’s superstar status was an inspiration for generations of young sailors to emulate. At the same time his continued participation and successes also helped inspire older sailors to continue engaging in the sport.