Sailors of the century

The British sailing team has been on a roll since 2000, with an impressive haul of Olympic medals, including nine golds. But the pressure on the ‘golden generation’ and their successors to perform again at next year’s Games is higher than ever. Matthew Sheahan reports.

June 18 2011
Matthew Sheahan

Sailing has been Britain’s most consistently successful Olympic discipline for more than a decade. The sport has led the UK’s Olympic rankings in all three Games since Sydney in 2000, a record that beats cycling, rowing and athletics by a large margin. And when it comes to the numbers of medals won, even though sailors can claim only one medal per medal cycle, British sailing has proved time and again that it can win on demand. Since 2000, the sailing side of Team GBR has scooped up a total of 16 medals, of which nine have been gold. During the same period, athletics has taken 14 and rowing 13. Only cycling has bettered these performances with 22 medals, most of which were gained in a major haul last time around.

For British sailing to come out on top in the 2008 Beijing Games was a major achievement, as the sailing took place at the notoriously wind-starved and fog-bound venue of Qingdao, 340 miles south-east of the capital city. Here the stakes were particularly high, as light and fluky weather conditions risked reducing four years of hard training into a drifting lottery. In the build-up to these games, the talk of frustrating and unappealing sailing conditions was rife among many of the other teams. But British sailors, when asked about the fickle conditions, responded with equanimity: what will be, will be, was their mantra. It must have stuck, because they peaked at precisely the right time, matching their nation’s expectations; the British team came out on top once again, taking four gold medals, a silver and a bronze, twice as many as second-placed Australia.

So, British Olympic sailing is now the envy of the sailing world. Some countries have tried to emulate the British formula, while others have criticised what they see as chequebook achievements, pointing to the level of funding that Britain’s Olympic team receives as the reason for success. But now, with the 2012 games just over a year away, when the sailing competition will take place in Weymouth in Dorset, a different set of pressures is beginning to build for British sailors.

First is the level of public expectation. Having revelled in its success in previous Olympics, the sport’s most enthusiastic British followers, many of whom are themselves amateur participants, expect to see similar success at home. Then there’s the pressure of getting into the British team in the first place.

Never has the competition been greater for the 10 team places. The standard of sailing is higher than ever before and nowhere is this more evident than with Britain’s most successful Olympic sailor, Ben Ainslie. He is one of the few household names in sailing, but when it comes to qualifying, his celebrated 15-year track record guarantees nothing.

Ainslie won a silver Olympic medal when aged 19 at the Atlanta Games in 1996 (before the British medal rush started), and with three successive gold medals since then, a further gold medal in Weymouth next year would see Ainslie, 34, become the most successful Olympic sailor ever. The current holder of that title is the Danish sailing legend Paul Elvström, now aged 83, whose winning streak of four successive gold medals began with a win at the London Olympics in 1948. If Ainslie wins another gold next year, he will end Elvström’s 51-year reign. Many expect him to achieve this with relative ease, such has been his dominance in the class, winning nine world and European championships. But Ainslie faces the stiffest competition of his career from within the UK for a place in the team.

Since stepping back into the Olympic-class Finn dinghy after his America’s Cup aspirations came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the British Team Origin, where he was skipper, Ainslie has been pushed hard and beaten at several of the key international regattas during the past eight months, by a younger pack of medal-hungry sailors including Ed Wright, the current Finn class world champion, Giles Scott and Andrew Mills. Ainslie may be a modern sailing legend, but the haul back to the front of the fleet is going to be a tough one.

One of the reasons for this is a subtle change in the class rules for the Finn, which now allow sailors to work their mainsails harder on the downwind legs of the course for extra speed. Pumping, which is the sailing equivalent of poling when skiing, has placed a premium on aerobic fitness aboard a boat that was already one of the most challenging physically. “I’m stronger and fitter than I was in 2004 for the games in Athens, but I find the training harder and more demanding,” says Ainslie. “The rules now allow pumping when the wind is over 10 knots. The result is that we can be working at close to our maximum heart rate for 15-20 minutes for each of these sections of the course. My training has had to change to match this and it is punishing.” The effect of this training regime is clear to see: at Qingdao for the 2008 games, where sailors needed, above all, to be light, he weighed 78kg; now his weight has risen to 94kg. “I’m killing myself doing this,” he says, “but I have to do it, the game’s changed this time around.”

For other Olympic aspirants who are looking to secure their places in the team, the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta, which was held at the Olympic venue in Weymouth earlier this month, should provide some crucial indicators. While British team selectors at the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) will not reveal the precise process by which they will be picking the team, Sail for Gold should give some clues, as the winners from each class are expected to go forward to the Olympic test event in August. Although the race course areas are familiar territory for all of the British sailors, a dry run for the Olympics is clearly a useful exercise both for competitors and for the selectors, who will be watching how they perform under pressure.

For some classes, the competition is so tight and the talent pool so deep and so plentiful that the selectors may have little choice but to take longer over their decision to make sure that they select the right team. The two-man 49er class is a good example of a national fleet brimming with promise, many of whom are capable of getting onto the medal podium and, indeed, have already done so in World and European championships. Dylan Fletcher and Alain Sign, Chris Draper and Peter Greenhalgh, John Pink and Rick Peacock, Paul Brotherton and Mark Asquith, along with Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes, who represented Britain at the last Olympics: each could take the coveted place for 2012.

Compared with the barren years of the 1980s, when British Olympic sailing talent was thin, such a surplus is a happy problem for the selectors. Yet when 2012 comes around and the pressure is really on, picking the team that will perform at its best over the 14 days of Olympic competition will not be a simple matter of looking up the previous season’s rankings.

At the other end of the scale are the sailors facing little or no competition for places in the Olympic team. Nick Dempsey, in the men’s windsurfing class, and Bryony Shaw, representing the women, have both won bronze medals at previous Olympics; neither is likely to be challenged for a place in the British team for 2012. Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson in the Star class, sailing the two-man keelboat, won gold in 2008 and have little home-grown competition for their place at the next Games. This makes it harder for them to keep up to standard and stay competitive. “Since 2006 and until recently I’ve been the most successful British female in the women’s windsurfing class,” says Shaw. “I’ve had to find foreign training partners and travel a great deal to make sure I get the right kind of competition at the right level. Unless I seek them out, my Olympic campaign doesn’t work.”

Dempsey is faced with a similar problem, and highlights another issue that sets the windsurfers’ campaigns out from the norm. As in the Finn, pumping is allowed on the RS:X windsurfer, but in all conditions, making this class the most aerobically demanding of them all. “We burn around 4,000 calories a day when we’re training and around 5,000 per day when we’re racing,” says Dempsey. “To do this we’re working at around 80 per cent of our maximum heart rate. There’s only so many hours a day you can do at this level and only so many calories you can consume to keep up with the burn.”

The result is that when compared to sailors in other classes, whose daily routine will include gym sessions for weights, a three- to four-hour session on the water and then an aerobic-style programme in the late afternoon/evening, the timetable for an Olympic windsurfer has plenty more free periods. Self-discipline is crucial in the windsurfing class and requires a different focus.

So how did British Olympic sailing get to such an enviable position, and what does such success mean for the rest of the country?

“In Britain the system was reasonably good at identifying talent, but a lack of funding meant that good ideas couldn’t be put into practice,” says Rod Carr, former chief executive of the RYA and one of the three main architects of the change in British Olympic sailing fortunes. Today he is a board member of UK Sport, which provides funding from the National Lottery, the Exchequer and private sponsors to British high-performance sports.

“The mentality throughout sport in the 1980s and 1990s was that the system had to be fair. It was an open structure, where anyone could win a place at the Olympics. That was fine if you came from a wealthy background and could afford to spend the time sailing, practising and getting to the key events. For people who had natural talent but had to hold down a job, it was very difficult to compete. Tired, working people crashing cars on a Friday night as they tried to get to a qualifying event was a familiar occurrence. The system might have appeared fair, but it wasn’t intelligent.”

The trigger for the change came in 1997 with the arrival of the National Lottery. Today the picture for sport funding is very different, and Olympic sailors are now full-time athletes. “We are well funded today, that’s true,” says Olympic sailing manager Stephen Park. “Around two thirds of an Olympic sailor’s funding comes from UK Sport, with a third raised from individual sponsorship from the corporate sector.”

According to Park, the RYA and the funding it receives have also helped sailors in indirect ways by investing in areas that would be of benefit to the British sailing team. From commissioning tidal research for Olympic venues, to data analysis systems and experts, sports science programmes, physiotherapy services, fitness analysis and more, the RYA sources and employs a range of services that are available to teams and team members.

Park, a former competitor turned Olympic coach, was appointed team manager in 2001, in preparation for the Athens games in 2004. Together with Rod Carr and the then racing manager/performance director John Derbyshire, each wrote their part of the World Class Plan. This document was required in order to secure the funding from the Lottery and was therefore key to the future of Britain’s new Olympic sailing campaign.

So what changes happened as a result of the new backroom structure? “The Olympic programme in 2000 was successful but based on a handful of very talented sailors,” explained Park. “Today the picture is very different, with a greater depth of talent in the team. At the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta in January, we had three Finn sailors, three 49er teams and two 470 teams on the podium among many others. In total we took 14 medals in Miami. And in the meantime, the competition has become more difficult,” he continues. “Over the past 10 years the gains that can be made through technology or training are much smaller. There is a greater number of talented sailors and the interaction between them helps to transfer the knowledge throughout the fleets. The result is that success at this level is becoming more difficult.”

Still Britain keeps its nose ahead. But what does the success mean for British sailing in general, and what are the prospects for national success in the future?

“The UK is a very special place for sailing as it has around 2,100 sailing clubs scattered throughout the country. That’s as many as in the whole of western Europe,” says Carr. “If sailing wasn’t an Olympic sport, the links between regional and national authorities would be far more difficult to establish.

“Success at Olympic level puts sailing on the map throughout the country and provides the ability of a local sailing club to approach a local authority for any number of reasons, from planning applications to grants. I’d bet there isn’t a club in the country that hasn’t benefited from some kind of help.”

Derbyshire, who took over from Carr after he became secretary general of the RYA, sees a similar picture. “Being a successful sport opens a lot of doors,” he says. “But we also use our Olympic successes to draw attention to other programmes designed to attract people to sailing. Our OnBoard programme, which is now in its seventh year, has the aim of providing half a million young people with the opportunity to try sailing and windsurfing. But getting people to go sailing isn’t the problem; retention is the key, and here we aim to retain upwards of 10 per cent on average. Of those, most will want to compete.”

When it comes to the future beyond 2012, Park is bullish about Britain’s prospects. “The top sailors from the ‘golden generation’, as they’ve become known, have started to roll over,” he said. “We’ve been seeing a steady transfer through to the next generation. Sailors such as Nick Rogers, who has already won two Olympic silver medals and is back in the running for the 470 class, along with Nic Asher, who has won the world championships twice, as well as Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell who came second at the most recent worlds in the same class – all of them are potential future Olympic stars.

“In the Laser class, Nick Thompson is pushing hard against Olympic gold medallist Paul Goodison, while Izzy Hamilton is starting to show promise in the RS:X women’s windsurfer.”

All of which is encouraging for the British sailing medal machine, but there are risks attached, as Ainslie points out. “The intensity of Olympic and world-class sailing is much higher now. Up-and-coming sailors are having to catch up with more experienced competitors who’ve been there for a long time,” he says. “The pressure on them to overtake is even greater, and these days if you’re not in the top three in the world, you’re struggling. Striving to be an Olympic sailor is a precarious career path to take as you have to dedicate everything to get there.”

Yet it seems that there are plenty of British sailors with the reserves of commitment and dedication needed to push them into the race for 2012 – and beyond.

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