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London 2012 Olympics - Winner takes all

by Mark Chisnell on 4 Aug 2012
Finns racing at the London 2012 Olympic Games Richard Langdon /Ocean Images © http://www.oceanimages.co.uk
The story remains the same - Ben Ainslie v Jonas Hogh-Christensen; Big Ben v The Great Dane in the title fight for the greatest Olympic sailor ever. It's a cliché packed delight, a smorgasbord of sporting archetypes. It's particularly tasty when you throw in the angle that a fourth gold medal for Ainslie will rip the title out of the hands of the original (and still the best) Great Dane, Paul Elvstrom. Ben Ainslie fights for his place in history, Jonas Hogh-Christensen fights for his countrymen's honour.

Sailing purists may well feel that this is getting over-blown to the point where it's overshadowing the entire Olympic regatta - and not to its benefit. There's a part of me that wants to agree with this - there are fantastic stories elsewhere: the top four 470 Women are separated by just three points; Annalise Murphy's rugged defence of her lead after four straight opening wins in the Laser Radial; Dorian Van Rijsselberge's extraordinary scorecard in the RS:X Men - 1,1,1,(3),1,2; Marina Alabau almost as effective in the RS:X Women 2,1,1,1,(5),2; and finally, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson's exquisite unpicking of Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada's heavy weather game in the Star, to go into the medal race with an eight point lead.

Exciting as all this is to those of us in the know, those of us who understand the personalities and the history, it just doesn't cut it with sports and news editors at major media outlets. They hear 'Greatest Ever...' and immediately spike everything else. And I have a lot of sympathy with that position - I write novels and I love a good story, and you couldn't write a story like Big Ben v The Great Dane without being accused of being unrealistic.

Today was a case in point. Race one and The Great Dane (TGD) has a solid start and converts it to a fourth at the top - he's won races from there. Meanwhile, Big Ben (BB) is struggling to find a lane off the line and can only work it into an 11th by the end of the beat. But the steel is back in BB's eyes and he progresses steadily while TGD slowly slips back towards him. By the finish, what should or could have been a massive scoreboard gainer for TGD, reaps him just a single lousy point.


The gap on the overall leaderboard is back to four points, and there's just one more to go before the medal race. Time to trot out all those 'cometh the moment, cometh the man' clichés, but there's no getting away from it - BB is launched out of the blocks on this most critical of all starts. He's second at the top, through into first by the end of the reach, proceeding to sail away from everyone downwind like he was in a different, bigger boat.

But wait... TGD has also found another gear downwind, screaming through from sixth to second. Suddenly things don't look so good for BB - he will need another boat between him and TGD in the medal race to take gold, and that will leave him relying on someone else - his fate will be out of his hands. So BB lets the mainsail out and slows down to wait for TGD... Oh. My. Word.

A lot will be written about what happened next, so I might as well get my two cents worth in early. I don't think Ainslie had any physical effect on Hogh-Christensen. Ben maintained a steady gap of about 100m for the whole beat, and was too far ahead of Jonas to have slowed him down effectively.

But I'm sure that it must have unsettled the Dane to see Ainslie hovering up there to windward. Jonas could hardly have helped wondering what the former World Match Racing Champion was going to do next, when he should have been focused on the next wave, the next shift - and Pieter-Jan Postma.

And sure enough, Postma was past Hogh-Christensen by the next windward mark, and held that lead comfortably down the final run. The gap between Ainslie and Hogh-Christensen is down to just two points, and that means that under the tie-break rules, whoever wins the medal race will win gold. So unless they let Postma get too far ahead, it really will be winner takes all.

Big Ben v The Great Dane is a great story, there's just no getting away from it, and while part of me acknowledges the unfairness of this on everyone else out there on Weymouth Bay, the bigger part of me is just grateful that sailing has such a fantastic story to bring it into the media spotlight at this extraordinary sporting jamboree. Maybe, just maybe, it'll encourage a few more kids to give sailing a go, and that can't be a bad thing.

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