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.....!

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