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Tokyo2020: Olympic sailing faces an uncertain future as Medalists opt out

by Richard Gladwell/ 6 Aug 2021 17:35 BST 7 August 2021
Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre (GBR) 470 Wiomen Gold Medalists - Tokyo2020 - Day 10 - August 4, , Enoshima, Japan © Richard Gladwell - / nz

The final day of racing at Tokyo2020 Olympic Sailing Regatta panned out much as expected.

After the two 470 Medal Races, there was only one change on the leaderboard, when the French Women's 470 crew dropped from being second overall before the start of the Medal race to being third and Bronze medalist.

The mesdames, or more probably their shore team were none too pleased with that outcome. They protested that the British crew had swung wide at the last mark of the Medal race to make room for Israel and Poland, and had then sailed slowly, handing the Silver medal to the Polish crew of Agnieszka Skrzypulec and Jolanta Ogar.

Given that the only way that the Brits could have lost the Gold Medal was to have incurred a non-discardable score in the Medal Race, they could have been excused for putting their Gold Medal chances first instead of worrying about preserving the pre-race leaderboard order for the Silver and Bronze medalists.

As outside boat at the mark rounding, they had to give way to all inside boats, including Poland and Israel.

The matter proved to be a storm in a teacup, driven more by Gallic emotion than rational thinking.

For sure, the matter shocked the Brits taking the edge off what should have been one of life's great moments. The protest was smoothed over to some extent at the post-race media conference, with the French crew saying they accepted the Jury decision to dismiss their claims.

The episode underlined the point that most of those who didn't make the medal podium died by their own hand. While the focus always goes on that last incident that seals their medal fate, many opportunities in the preceding ten races could have made for a different outcome.

The Medal Race media conferences were saved by the efforts of sailing journalist Andy Rice, who World Sailing had contracted to provide race reports and other media functions. He did a superb job.

One of his standard questions at the media conferences was to ask how many of the Medalists intended to compete at the next Olympics, set down for Marseille in 2024 - just three years away, and for which the the first Olympic Qualifier is 12 months away.

When he first popped the question, it seemed a little trite. But as media conference followed media conference, the trend became apparent.

Surprisingly Andy Rice got few takers to commit to another Olympic campaign. This was surprising from a group who had just medalled and were at the top of their game. The reaction was across all classes, not just those five events for whom Tokyo2020 was their swansong.

After some goading, one or two appeared to be more open to returning to the five-ring circus, with one of the Finn competitors hinting that he might try and drop weight to compete in the Laser.

A couple of the Women's 470 sailors indicated, again after some verbal arm-twisting, that they might go again. However, both Gold medal-winning 470 skippers Hannah Mills (GBR) and Mat Belcher (AUS) indicated this was their last Olympics.

With the focus being very much on success for Tokyo2020, it is quite likely that most had not given any thought to their future beyond August 5, 2021. However, even in the 49er class, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were very circumspect on their options going forward and kept their arms down when Rice popped the question.

The uniformity of the response was compelling.

World Sailing has long sold the line that the sport needs radical change. Clearly, those who are the stars of the sport don't share that view.

Other sports, faced with the same IOC requirement for gender equity, did the minimum necessary to reach the IOC guidelines instead of following Sailing's lead and changing 50% of its events.

The top nations at these Sailing Olympics were Great Britain and Australia. Of the 30 medals on offer, the Brits won five and were the only nation to have the depth to win Gold, Silver and Bronze. But of the Brits' Gold Medal wins, only the Men's 49er will be sailing in 2024.

The Finn ended almost 70 years of Olympic competition, leaving the 470 as the oldest class - but to be used in a new event, the Mixed Two Person Dinghy, in 2024.

While many will be quick to point to the Mixed 470 as being the most popular division at the last 470 class world championships, it would seem that some arranged marriages will have to take place to get the top sailors from Tokyo2020 to switch to the new event Paris2024.

For those countries that run state-funded Olympic programs, some fast-talking could be required to persuade those who hold the purse strings that Sailing is deserving of their continued financial support. Based on mediocre Olympic results, that might not be easy with a 50% turnover in events and no established combinations in the five of the new events. The fact that the first round of the 2024 Olympic selection is just 12 months away doesn't make the task any easier.

Usually, the funding has to be argued on a case-by-case basis. Those finishing outside the top ten overall at the Olympics have to rely on previous outstanding results to warrant further investment.

The issue for Sailing in the coming funding round in all countries is that it is an outlier because of the degree of Event change compared to other sports. The other 27 Olympic sports can go to the funders with a solid slate of proven performers in events that won't change from those raced in August 2021.

If a sport has underperformed - compared to previous predictions/medal promises, then the risk is that some of the Sailing funding could be shifted to another sport that is delivering, and with more budget, can deliver even more. It's a competitive game.

The Finn was the highlight event of the Olympics, given that Peter Burling and Blair Tuke just missed creating sailing history by winning an Olympic Gold medal and an America's Cup within a year, let alone six months.

The finish of the Finn Medal Race was a milestone in history for Olympic sailing - marking the exit of the class that has given Olympic Sailing many of its heroes, and whose names have become synonymous with Olympic and sailing greatness - Elvstrom, Ainslie, Schumann, Percy, Coutts, Bertrand and Scott.

It also marked the end of 20 years of British dominance in the class - both at an Olympic level and in world championships. The British Finn program has to be the standout of the past two decades or more.

The latest of the British Finn cohort, Giles Scott, was arguably the standout sailor of the 2021 Olympic regatta, winning six of the ten races sailed in the Qualifying round. No other sailor achieved this level of dominance.

Standing in the Mixed Zone and the Medal ceremonies, how small many of the top skippers are in height and stature is very apparent - and how many of the crews are tall and slim.

The exception is the Nacra 17 class, which seems very tolerant of various body sizes and types, but less than 80kg.

The exception, of course, is when the Finn sailors come loping through - all moderately tall and with impressive physiques - yet World Sailing has declared these people to be persona non grata in the Olympic side of the sport.

It seems that they will move out of Olympic sailing and into other professional areas of the sport such as America's Cup, SailGP, Offshore and Ocean Racing. Quite what becomes of the Finn class with its well-patronised Masters' events remains to be seen, as does the future of the Finn Gold Cup. It is hard to believe that the class will be long out of the Olympics.

Other standouts from the 2021 Olympic Regatta were Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze (BRA), defending their Olympic title in the 49erFX. Australia's Mat Belcher won his second Olympic Gold medal (plus a Silver from 2016), and crew Will Ryan his first Gold and second Olympic medal. They turned in a very consistent performance dropping an eighth-place as their discard. Hannah Mills (GBR) won her second Gold medal in the Women's 470 - her third in the class, having won a Silver medal in 2012. Her crew Eilidh McIntyre is the daughter of Mike McIntyre, the surprise Gold medal winner in the Star class, along with crew Bryn Vaile, in the 1988 Olympics in Korea. There were several second-generation sailing Olympians amongst the 350 competitors at Enoshima.

However, the standout of them all was Australian 470 coach Victor Kovalenko - who, thanks to Belcher and Ryan's win in Tokyo, won his seventh Olympic Gold medal. It sits alongside his four silver medals in the two-handed Olympic class covering Men's and Women's competitions.

Both Mat Belcher and Hannah Mills declared their Olympic careers to be over at the Medalists media conference.

One suspects that the steadying hand of Ian Walker on the tiller of the British Olympic Team may have been a significant factor in the team's success when the difficulties of Enoshima became apparent. Walker, the Royal Yachting Association Director of Racing, and previously a double Olympic Silver medalist, Volvo Ocean Race winner, and America's Cup campaigner, had the right combination of sailing and management experience to see the way the Tokyo2020 card were likely to fall and make the required adjustments. Iain Murray, with similar experience, probably did the same for Australia. Between them, the two countries accounted for five Gold medals, a Silver and Bronze. But of all the multi-medal winning teams, the Brits were the only ones to improve over Rio.

One can only guess at the effect of Covid on team preparations for the regatta.

The medal split shows European countries winning 24 medals, Oceania 3, South America 1, and Asia 2. That probably indicates that the European programs put together a pre-Olympic regatta schedule that was not possible outside Europe. By comparison, in the 2016 Olympics, European nations won 18 medals, Oceania 8, South America 2, Asia 1, and North America 1. There has been a significant shift between the pre-Covid and Covid Olympic years.

Enoshima appeared to be quite a challenging venue, with the expected big breezes failing to eventuate, and with that in mind, some close selections may have been different. It was rare to find a medalist that didn't turn in a scorecard with at least one of two double-digit placings, and consistency was a more substantial winning factor than brilliance.

The fact that the Olympic test event was postponed and then cancelled - didn't help the southern hemisphere countries. The Europeans probably had more flexibility to rearrange their schedule.

The late, final decision to outlaw all electronic devices, including YotBot used by 16 teams, in hindsight probably had a more significant effect than most gave it credit. The winds were predominantly light to moderate, and teams soon realised that playing the shifts up the middle of the course wasn't a winning strategy. If nothing else it gave crews some confidence in the wind information they were seeing before the start, and the accuracy of forecasts. Not prohibited was the use of external forecasting services, which if World Sailing were serious about stopping an "arms race" is another area that could have been targeted - but like the ban on electronic devices it is impossible to police equally, rather than the cop-out of a spot check.

Banging a corner proved to be the more successful if somewhat more risky strategy - giving either a top three or, worst case, a low double-digit place.

What is being achieved by such rulings to end a so-called "arms race" is highly questionable - provided only off the shelf technology is permitted.

As a percentage of overall budgets, the technology cost is a very small part of the Olympic program - and is a one-off cost. Checking coach boats and kit for electronic devices is not a perfect science, if it's done at all. There are also safety issues involved.

While it is unfair to single teams out for poor performance at Enoshima, the US team will need a significant turnaround.

In 1984 at a home Olympics, the US won a medal in every event. They started a dynasty in 1984, which lasted for three Olympiads and then began to fade as the keelboat classes - notably the Soling and Star were dropped.

The US won a single medal in 2008 and 2016 and came away medal-less from 2020/21. Of the nine classes in which the US competed, in Japan, they made the Medal race in three - the Men's 470, Nacra 17 and Men's RS:X finishing ninth overall in each class.

The US funding model is quite different from the state-funded programs, and how they can achieve the same outcomes will be watched with interest over the next year.

Otherwise, their objective has to be running the team, as at present, based on giving the sailors the Olympic experience, or Olympism, and all the life experiences that brings.

Usually, the US performance would be accepted for being what it is. However, with the 2028 Olympics to be sailed at Long Beach, an Enoshima result will not be acceptable to what was once the top Olympic sailing nation.

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