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Sail-World NZ - August 23, 2021: Peeling the Olympic Onion - a view from MIQ

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 23 Aug 2021 02:42 BST 23 August 2021
Peter Burling and Blair Tuke - Mens 49er - Tokyo2020 - Day 4 - July, 28, 2021 - Enoshima, Japan © Richard Gladwell - Sail-World.com/nz

Welcome to Sail-World.com's New Zealand e-magazine for August 23, 2021

This commentary comes to you from MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine), the Half-way House between New Zealand and the outside world.

I'm doing the required 14-day quarantine stint following the Tokyo2020 Olympics.

Being sequestered in a room by yourself at MIQ for 21hrs a day, preceded by a 14-day flexi-quarantine in Tokyo, all under military supervision, is not the most inspiring place to be writing, but here goes.

As many have noted on the crude basis of medal-count, Tokyo2020 was New Zealand's worst-ever sailing result since Athens 2004. There, New Zealand competed in eight of the ten events but returned medal-less.

Boardsailer Barbara Kendall was the top sailing competitor at those Olympics with a fifth place overall in the Women's Mistral.

Following Athens, it was noted by those who pay the bills that monohull classes had not won a medal for three Olympiads.

All the medals for three Olympiads (1996, 2000 and 2004) had been won by Boardsailors. That begged the suggestion (which was echoed by funders) that sailing's high-performance funding could be poured 100% into the boards with no diminution in Olympic sailing medals won.

The 2008 Olympic regatta at Qingdao, China, improved with Tom Ashley winning a Gold medal, but again in a board sailing class. That stretched it out to four Olympics without a medal in a monohull. Andrew Murdoch was the next best performer with a 5th in the Men's Laser. New Zealand competed in seven of the eleven events.

The Kiwis went up a level again at London 2012 winning a Gold and Silver medals in the Women's 470 and Men's 49er respectively, plus three fifth placings - there were five Kiwi crews in the top five overall. New Zealand crews contested nine of the ten events.

The NZ Olympic sailing team's performance lifted in Rio 2016, with four medals (Gold, two Silver and a Bronze) and five in the top five overall. Not a bad return, given that NZ competed in only seven events, despite qualifying in all ten.

New Zealand opened its Olympic sailing account at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. That regatta also yielded our first Gold medal. New Zealand contested just two of the five events - three of which were sailed in keelboats and two in dinghies.

Barcelona was New Zealand's best Olympics, in 1992, with Kiwi sailors winning a Gold medal, two Silver and a Bronze. Eight crews finished in the top five. New Zealand contested all ten events.

Rounding out this potted Olympic sailing history summary, New Zealand won two Golds and a Bronze in 1984 at Long Beach, ending a 20-year medal drought, followed by a Gold, Silver and Bronze four years later in Korea.

The just-completed Olympic Sailing Regatta in Enoshima completed a 57-year Olympic cycle for New Zealand.

Half events to change

Of the six events contested by NZ in Tokyo2020, just four will continue for Paris 2024 in three years - Mixed Nacra 17, Men's ILCA7 (Laser), Men's 49er, Women's 49erFX.

Of the three new events - Men's and Women's Kiteboarding, Mixed 470, New Zealand has some options with internationally competitive sailors available, but many more are needed.

The women's singlehander, the Laser Radial, now known as the ILCA6, remains a vexed issue given that New Zealand qualified in both 2016 and 2020 but chose not to select a competitor in either year. New Zealand's Olympic place was returned to World Sailing for reallocation to another country.

There is a strong Windfoil and iQFoil class fleet in New Zealand - running an excellent program. It should provide a strong talent pool for the new Olympic windsurfer. It will do that in Men's, but depth in the Women's fleet is always problematic.

In any breeze, the iQFoil will be the fastest class in the Olympic regatta, and the days of prolonged rig-pumping required to keep the RS:X moving at displacement speed are hopefully gone. And if not, then the practice should be banned.

New pairings will have to be put together for the Mixed 470 event. The lesson from the podium at Enoshima was obvious - a tall slim crew and a short crew indicates more focus on physique selection - like other Olympic sports.

But as previously noted from the Medal winners media conferences in Enoshima, few of the Class of 2020 wanted to stick around for Marseille.

There needs to be more depth in the talent pool for all the other Olympic classes except the IqFoil, Men's 49er and possibly the Nacra 17.

International sailing on hold

In the current COVID environment, the option of a crew training alone in New Zealand and then having a winter season in Europe is not viable given the requirement for two weeks of quarantine, sometimes at both end of the trip.

From personal experience, the heavy over-booking in MIQ means that New Zealand athletes are effectively prisoners in their own country, until quarantine-free international resumes.

For the 2024 Olympics, the Nacra 17's need to develop stability within the crews and class. The situation where three crews changed their composition a year out from the original Tokyo2020 regatta dates virtually sealed the NZ Nacra 17 performance in Enoshima. Given the crew changes, the injury to Erica Dawson and cancellation of the preliminary regatta at Enoshima, 12th overall was a good result against teams, many of whom were competing in their second Olympics.

The NZ Olympic sailing program has to be expanded to the level where crews are selected in all events in which Olympic Qualifying standards are met. The current practice of selecting smaller teams is not an acceptable long term strategy. There must be more emphasis on talent development at Olympic level.

This issue is most acute in Women's sailing.

New Zealand opted not to compete in two of the four women's events in 2016 and were no-shows in three women's events in 2020/21. Kiwi sailors had met Olympic qualifying standards in all five events.

Quite what signal does that send to women who are coming through the Optimist, P-class and Starling ranks?

Does it mean that the pinnacle event for NZ women sailors is really the Youth Worlds? That's the clear implication when sailors qualify a class for an Olympic event, but the spot is not taken up. Instead, it gets redistributed to another nation, keener to get its sailors to the Olympics.

Less is not more

Medium to long term, it is not logical to enter fewer events and expect to win more Olympic medals.

We're all familiar with the cost-efficient concept of properly funding the best.

Unfortunately for protagonists of that view, an analysis of Olympic results since 2000 shows that few people win an Olympic Gold medal on their first attempt, although all go with high expectations. Usually a future medalist will finish just inside or outside the top ten on their first Olympic regatta.

Tom Ashley finished 10th in the Men's boardsailing in 2004 and went on to win Gold in the same event in 2008. Jo Aleh finished 7th in the Laser Radial in 2008 and then won Gold in 2012 in the Women's 470. Peter Burling finished 11th in 2008 with Carl Evans in the Men's 470 before winning Silver with Blair Tuke in 2012. The same story recurs in other countries and the Olympic paths of their rockstars.

It is a huge learning experience for first-time Olympians, vital if they are to medal in subsequent Olympics. Worst case, their entry and result provides a benchmark for their fleet at home.

Certainly, the genuine medal prospects need to be properly funded, but that is a management issue.

Am opportunity to reflect

The best part of spending the past two weeks in MIQ has been listening to double Olympic Gold medalist Shirley Robertson's podcasts during the nearly three hours a day of self-absorbed trudging on the gravel of the exercise yard before being locked back into solitary quarantine for the next 21 hours.

The podcasts are excellent - particularly the interviews with the top Olympians such as Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy, Tom Slingsby, Russell Coutts, Santiago Lange, Blair Tuke, Hannah Mills, Giles Scott, Rodney Pattisson and more.

There are some common themes running through their stories. While the Gold medalists admit to having some talent, most of their Olympic success is attributed to focussed training, starting early, goal setting and achievement, and having fun.

Most suffered significant setbacks but turned them around to get their campaigns back on the rails. Usually, these setbacks occurred in their first Olympic campaign, but they learned more from their mistakes than their successes.

For the past 20 years, Great Britain has been the top Olympic sailing nation, as has France in trans-oceanic racing, and New Zealand in the America's Cup.

Now the Brits have an intergenerational Olympic culture - with the likes of double Gold-medalist Iain Percy and others mentoring now double Gold medalist Giles Scott and coaching the GB Nacra 17 crew. 470 Silver medalist Ian Walker is Director of Racing for the Royal Yachting Association.

There is a lot to be learned in Shirley Robertson's podcast sessions.

This 2020/21 Olympics has been a watershed in the sport. It is the end of an era that began in 1948 and heralds the start of a new one in 2024. It is too easy to sit back and go with the flow set by Yachting New Zealand and others of their ilk.

With the new direction for the Sailing Olympics, it is time for every sailor from the age of 14 yrs and upwards to have a long think about the direction they would like to take - whether it is the Olympics, America's Cup or elsewhere.

From the podcasts, it is surprising how many of the top sailors had their first Olympic experience while in their late teens or early 20's. Many of them were training partners for the Olympic incumbent.

But all remembered it is supposed to be fun, an investment in themselves, and not a lot of long hours and hard work, just to please someone else.

For all the latest news from NZ and around the world, see the top stories below.

Between newsletters, you can follow all the racing and developments in major and local events on www.sail-world.com/nz or by scrolling to the top of the site, select New Zealand, and get all the latest news and updates from the sailing world.

Good sailing!

Richard Gladwell
NZ Editor

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