Friday, 14 September 2012

British Olympic sailors no longer rule the waves

And so the Games are over.... and we leave our stations with some very special memories, which for me revolve around the new young British talent that emerged so spectacularly in Weymouth Bay.
Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell had loads of fun....and won silver at first Olympics by IAN ROMAN

Luke, Stu, Hannah, Saskia and Alison to name but five. They gave everything in their pursuit of excellence and kept us gripped from start to finish, the gold medal a certainty for all of them in the future.

But whichever way you try and ham up the British sailors success in winning one gold medal and four silvers, the fact is that London 2012 will be Team GB's worst Olympics since 1996.

Since Sydney 2000 where Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy first won their gold medals, GB has been the leading nation on sailing's medal table but at London 2012, almost beyond belief, the Brits no longer rules the waves, having surrendered their position to the mighty Australians who won three golds and Spain with two though Britain did end up with more medals overall.

Inevitably questions will be asked as to why this performance is so disappointing especially against the backdrop of Britain's best ever Olympic games.

In two classes, one could argue the outcome was dictated by luck. Percy and Simpson played a blinder all week in the Stars but lost out on a fluky Nothe course at the final hurdle to see gold snatched from under their noses by the Swedes.

Mills and Clark were desperately unlucky when a congested start forced them to stay put in the middle of the fleet while the Kiwi team Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie, needing clean air had no choice but to find another route...which happily after a timely windshift proved a fastrack to gold while our girls floundered at the back of the fleet. These pesky shifts on the Nothe dragged Britain down the table.

Saskia Clark and Hannah Mills - fantastic new talent. Next stop Rio

Stuart Bithell and Luke Patience admitted all week they are exciteable and showed this in their medal race when they were penalised for excessive pumping downwind. No disgrace there lads.....the gold in Rio is an odds on certainty unless Mat Belcher finds an outstanding, exceptional, heroic, lovely, talented, experienced crew as good as Malcom Page. He announced his retirement but we'll really miss him.

Personally, the idea of watching Patience and Bithell and Mills and Clark over the next four years is really exciting. All of them love the sport and want to win. What more can Britain expect from their sailing champions?

Goody's hug for Saskia
So lets look at the stats.

Sydney 2000, GB won three golds and two silvers. FIVE medals.

Athens 2004, GB won two golds, one silver and two bronze. FIVE.

Beijing 2008, GB won four golds, a silver and a bronze. SIX.

London 2012, GB won one gold and four silvers. FIVE

OK so no great difference in the numbers and one more than the RYA target but ONE solitary gold must be a massive disappintment to the Team GB management, especially Stephen Park who has been in charge since Athens.

There may be any number of reasons for the decline but the main one Park has already mentioned in despatches is other country's success in catching up with Britain, mostly as a result of copying the GB model which involved creating a sound infrastructure with clearly identified pathways and pulling in plenty of funding, which Britain was able to do courtesy of the National Lottery.

So Australia has pulled in loads of money - around £4 million a year of public money plus masses more in private donations which may explain why they are topping the medals table for the first time, pushing Britain off its perch as leading sailing nation for the first time since 2000. They did it first in June at Skandia Sail for Gold and have done it again.

Brazil has also stumped up loads ahead of Rio 2016 though USA, Spain, Italy and France seem to be troubled by the amounts that Britain spend and claim to invest a tenth of the estimated £10 million a year that RYA spends on its Olympic sailing medals. There is little question that there is a direct correlation between budget and medals and Britain has been splashing the cash to fantastic effect for the past 12 years. Maybe they should now splash more to gain ground.

Park will also point to the pressure of performing at home which he has been worried about for years. There is only so much you can do to prepare your athletes for this but it is interesting that at Stratford, Eton and Greenwich the home advantage spurred athletes on to amazing things whereas in Weymouth, it had the opposite effect.

Admittedly there wasn't the same sort of buzz in Weymouth except on the Nothe where 5,000 paying public gathered each day to watch and support. Sailors are not generally used to being cheered so maybe that support hindered rather helped...but that's quite difficult to imagine. It will almost certainly have cranked up the pressure....and in a half hour race on a tight course in a shifty breeze, small mistakes proved catastrophic. Even Ainslie almost came a cropper.

Some of the selections, in particular the 49ers and even the Lasers,are bound to come under scrutiny. In both cases, selectors went for the safe bet...or so they thought... rather than make brave choices. Many thought Nick Thompson in the Lasers was ready for Olympic competition and that Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes, while superb sailors, struggled with the pressure of top level competition.

They showed this in Beijing and have never really done anything since to shake off the tag yet irrespective of that, they got the nod. Selectors had plenty of options in the 49ers - how many times did GB have at least five teams in the ISF World Cup medal races?? But the lack of medals from those medal races suggest timid and tentative management. There's a word for that sort of management but I can't think of it right now!!

Anyway, its easy to pick holes after an event where performances have dipped. One of the endless questions in sport is what makes an athlete or a team good (great?) and how can standards be maintained. Britain's sailors have come up with fantastic answers to that question for more than a decade and now with Ainslie and Percy backing out, we will see a changing of the guard which will almost certainly kick start our campaign.

More cash might not be necessary, Which reminds me.....I've been buying lottery tickets every week since the announcement that London had won the Games was made. I wanted to feel that I'd contributed to the medal that Ainslie or Percy would be wearing round their neck so religiously invested £5 each and every week for the past seven years.....thats about £1800 worth. Time now to stop...but it was worth it, by golly. Next sto Rio.....!

Agony and ecstasy on the Nothe

We felt dead privileged on Super Sunday at the Olympics to witness something we’ll never EVER see again but watching history unfold, while sitting among a partisan British crowd on a grassy bank in Weymouth with sun shining, was even better than watching Kevin Pietersen make a double hundred before lunch. No seriously......

There had been no atmosphere at all at the sailing venue because the grockles and masses are kept well away by friendly men with guns . There have been more than 500 journalists passing through the media centre but we all sit quietly (ahem!)  tuned into our computers, the televisions, trackers and twitter.  

Going out on press boats in search of a vibe, offers insight into start line action but the rules are so strict, we have to stay miles away so see or hear  very little unless Ben Ainslie is going off on one.

Amazing crowds on the Nothe
No wifi on board and footage on television that lags about ten seconds behind makes this an inefficient way of following the action though lounging around with binoculars on those fabulous Beneteau Swift Trawlers isn’t the worse way to earn a living.

Our Olympic accreditation doesn't allow us entry to the Nothe, where people have paid up to £55 a ticket to watch the action, which is bizarre really since it is an experiment by the International Olympic Committee to see whether sailing as a ticketed sport works. 

Feedback from friends and other random connections suggest it has been a huge success, even though there is limited seating and the security regulations are more draconian than an American airport. No deckchairs, no drinks and no umbrellas longer than a beer bottle!! 

It was bizarre that the media were not being allowed in. And when we are not allowed in to places, we get angry, really angry and kick up a fuss.  Especially when  global gargoyles Luca Bontempelli (ITA), George Streuli (Seppo! ) Olivier LeClerc (FRA) and me (UK) all muster together. Yikes. Scary. So finally they relented which allowed moi  and a young upstart from the Sun called Alex West to snatch the tickets. Wey hey!! 

We had to queue for about half an hour – yawn yawn – and they confiscated almost everything in our rucksacks but as soon as we got in, we started to live the Olympic dream. Or at least feel it.

It was like walking into a party in Hamble....loads of mates intent of watching some damn good sport and having a blast. All of Hamble, Lymington and Cowes had applied for tickets and got them.....which made for a knowledgeable and appreciative crowd.

Won’t bother to go into detail here because what happened next has been pretty widely reported but while I soaked up the atmosphere for a ‘colour’ piece, my head was somewhere else so  I never quite got over the first shock of the day to enjoy the flares from the second.  

He looks OK but don't be fooled!!
I was gutted for Iain and Bart. Totally, totally overwhelmed with sadness because all week they had been on the sort of form that garners awards for commentators, let alone athletes.  Their Olympic cycle taught us more about professional sport than any other example I can think of because some way out, they knew they had work to do on their fitness and equipment but over the months, ticked all the boxes one by one to get themselves not just back into contention but into pole position. 

There was nothing flashy about it, just hard work and loads of guts. I watched all this and knew they would get gold. What I didn't know was how much would be left up to chance on that flukey Nothe course. Too much, some reckon and the rub of the green went against them. Unlucky....and heart-breaking.

Unlike many of the other sailors they also made us laugh in the mixed zone with their intelligent, healthy and grown up take on sport. 

They are happy to commit their bodies and minds but not their souls and that shows. All-round athletes, all-round blokes that we as journos feel privileged to know. And bleedin nora, they won a silver medal which makes Percy a legend and Simpson a super god.

It was only by the grace of god that our hero Big Ben didn’t suffer the same desperate silvery fate in the next race. The rub of the green without any doubt went with him and he will be forever grateful to Dutch man Pieter-Jan Postma that a rush of blood worked so perfectly in Britain’s favour! Lucky and fabulous.

Dynamic and happy couple
So we cheered and sang and whooped and hollered when Ben’s big moment arrived. Five medals.  Wow, what an achievement. You have to admire him and we will celebrate again when he earns his knighthood. His girlfriend Marit Bouwmeister, a silver medallist in the Laser Radials from the Nederlands was beside herself with pride when she met up with him in the boat park shortly after her racing ended. 

Incidentally, I am shamelessly giving the Stars more space here than the Finn because our sports editors (including mine!) have, in my view, failed to give Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson the credit they are due. So I salute our Stars.

At the press conferences afterwards, they were all more relaxed than we have seen them in two years or so. Poor old Percy had to deal with a question, clumsily but not nastily put, about how he felt about his career being on a slide compared Ainslie’s going stratospheric.  It was unfortunate but Percy didn’t punch the bloke which is how it looked when he first fixed the journalist with a wild eyed stare and roared ‘WOW’. Very Richard Burton I thought.

And then, if he had any sense he would have gone and got drunk as Burton would certainly have done. That was what I was intending to do but for all Ainslie’s wonderful exploits, I left the media centre feeling rather flat.  Sport is real life drama with real life characters so it is not surprising that we suffer when the best loved characters get a little bit burned. 

When people ask about London 2012 and what it meant, this will probably be the answer.  Ainslie’s legacy and Percy’s pain though Dorian’s Crazy Penis will come a close second. But that’s for tomorrow.