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Sailors Locked Out of Olympic Hall of Fame

Despite there being a plethora of qualified candidates, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame has yet to induct a single sailor.

February 28, 2012
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Sailing World

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With a gold and two silvers in four Olympics, 470 and Flying Dutchman skipper Paul Foerster (left, with double Olympic medalist Kevin Burnham, shortly after they clinched the Men’s 470 gold in Athens in 2004) should be a lock for the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. But he and other multiple medalist American sailors have been ignored by a committee that seems focused on a few marquee sports and the famous names. Stuart Streuli

A Monday morning e-mail from the U.S. Olympic Committee announced the nominees for the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class of 2012. I perused the list, looking for any notable names. A few caught my eye: wrestler John Smith, who was a collegiate and Olympic superstar when I was a high school wrestler, is on there. As is Dan O’Brien, the decathlete and star of the famous “Dan & Dave” Reebok commercials that ran during the lead up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Cross-country skiing pioneer Bill Koch made the list. As did an alpine skier I’d never heard of, Gretchen Fraser. It turns out she was a legend, winning two medals at the 1948 Winter Olympics. There is even a synchronized swimmer, Tracie Ruiz-Conforto. I know, I don’t think it’s an Olympic-worthy sport either. But she did win two golds and one silver. I think she was also a stunt swimmer in Caddyshack (OK, I have no idea if that’s true).

No sailors were on the list of 18 former Olympians, which I didn’t find to be very surprising. There are a lot of Olympic sports to cover. But something nagged at the back of my mind, so I clicked through to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame website and went through the 14 groups of athletes and contributors—128 in all—that have been inducted into the hall of fame since it was founded in 1983.

You guessed it, not a single sailor. There are an astounding 38 Track and Field athletes and 15 swimmers. The men’s basketball team has been inducted four times, while six boxers have also been chosen. There are rowers, skiers, weightlifters, figure skaters, a shooter, two wrestlers, and an equestrian. But no sailors.

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The number of Track and Field athletes is shocking at first glance. But it’s almost exactly on par with the sport’s production—29 percent of all medals won by the United States in the summer Olympics (738 of 2296) have been won in Track and Field. Swimming has won 489 medals (19 percent) so that sport could claim to be underrepresented. However in each of those sports, swimming in particular, athletes can compete in multiple events in each Olympics, and in each event more than one athlete from a country can win a medal. Since the first modern Olympics in 1896, Sailing has awarded just 161 Olympic gold medals. Track and Field has handed out 884, Swimming, 489.

The biggest injustices, however, are found in looking at some of the individual honorees. The bios of the six boxers, while all household names and gold medalists, make it seem as if they won more for what they did after the Olympics. None even competed in a second Olympics, but all had legendary professional careers. Then there are a few one-hit wonders from Track and Field: Bob Beamon, the record-setting 1968 Long Jump champion, and Billy Mills, who was the surprise champion of the 10,000 meters in Tokyo in 1968 and had his life story made into a movie. Dick Fosbury won a gold medal in the high jump in 1968 and pioneered the modern high-jump technique. But does one Olympic gold medal make you worthy of an Olympic Hall of Fame? The 1992 Men’s Basketball Team, aka the Dream Team, was so much more talented than every other team in the competition that anything but the gold would’ve been an embarrassment.

The aforementioned Dan O’Brien didn’t even make the 1992 Olympic team, famously no-heighting the pole vault in the Trials, and scrubbing the absurd amount of pre-race buzz generated by Reebok’s commercials. He won gold in 1996, and three world titles. But how many sailors can match that level of accomplishment? Of course, looking through the list it appears even a single Decathlon gold all but guarantees an athlete induction into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, which leads me to wonder: Is Wheaties one of the big sponsors? A second question: can an athlete be removed from the Hall of Fame for being involved in any way shape or form with the Kardashian blight (I’m looking at you, Mr. Jenner!).

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All kidding aside, the fact that not one sailor has made the Hall of Fame is a travesty. No athlete spends more time in competition during an Olympic fortnight than a sailor, who must compete for 10 hours or more over the course of two weeks. Not to mention the fact that sailing is ninth among all summer sports when it comes to contributing to the nation’s Olympic medal haul.

For pure accomplishment, Star skipper Mark Reynolds is a shoe in. He won silver in 1988, and gold in 1992 and 2000. Hal Haenel was Reynold’s crew in 1988 and 1992, as well as in 1996, when they finished eighth. Paul Foerster won gold and two silver, and did so in two different classes. He’s also got a few Pan Am golds to his credit. He should follow right on Reynolds’ heels. Foerster’s crew in 2004, the irrepressible Kevin Burnham, won silver and gold on the wire of the 470 and celebrated the latter with a back flip just after crossing the finish line. Buddy Melges won a gold and a bronze. He also won the America’s Cup, in case future achievements outside the Olympic arena factor into selection. Bill Bentsen crewed for Melges in both Olympics, sailing in the Flying Dutchman in 1964 and the Soling in 1972. Jonathan McKee matched their haul, also in two different classes. For a feel-good story, how about the fact that McKee’s bronze medal in the 49er in 2000 came sailing with his brother Charlie, himself a two-time bronze medalist. Jonathan McKee was also the coach of the 1992 U.S. Sailing Team, which took home nine medals from 10 events. Allison Jolly and Lynne Jewell Shore won the first women’s gold medal in sailing. If you’ve ever seen footage of the sailing off Pusan, South Korea, in 1988, you know anyone who was willing to sail a 470 in those extreme conditions deserves high praise. Peter Barrett won silver in the Finn and gold in the Star, crewing for Lowell North, who also won bronze in the Dragon. North also founded a sail making company you might’ve heard of. JJ Fetter won bronze and silver in the 470. Mike Gebhardt did the same in the sailboard, he also competed in five Olympics if you include his participation in the windsurfing demonstration event at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

I’m sure I’m leaving out someone. But that’s plenty for the nomination committee get started. The email I received was somewhat vague on the exact process. But I’m sure some pressure from US Sailing won’t hurt (I’ve already e-mailed President Jobson). You can also provide some feedback to Team USA and the Hall of Fame on their Facebook page. Let the folks there know what a travesty it is that no sailors have been deemed outstanding enough pass through the virtual doors of their Hall of Fame. You can even copy the above paragraph of qualified American sailors paste it in there.

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