The medal race that never was

Qingdao Olympic Regatta 2008. Start of the Finn Medal Race - almost.

That was the goof that was – the first ever medal race in the Olympic regatta, a competition finale foisted on sailors by the IOC, who in tune were driven by the Great God Television, which produced nothing the viewing public, outside of committed sailors, would have understood or appreciated. And all because the wind failed to oblige.

The lack of wind was a known factor seven years ago when Qingdao was chosen as the site for this Olympic regatta, much to the horror of those who read the history of the wind in Fushan Bay at this time of the year.

Even when the average breeze figures were artificially enhanced by choosing to include gathering points outside the area, they were still too low for anyone but an eternal optimist to be content. But the City of Qingdao had demanded the right to hold the regatta and, more importantly, was prepared to pay for the right.

On Saturday August 16th 2008, in accordance with the wishes of the IOC, the medal races for the Finns and Ynglings were scheduled to be held just off the harbour wall at Qingdao. It proved to be a disastrous decision, but the markers had been laid down by those who have little or no idea about yacht racing. Anyone would have known that with the onset of a sea-breeze, such wind along a foreshore with a backdrop of tall buildings, the wind would be fickle in the extreme.

One felt for the best race officer in the world, Peter Reggio, aka Luigi, who had the unenviable task of trying to run these races. A northerly, at the scheduled starting time dropped away and was replaced by an unstable south-easterly and Luigi would have known that there was every chance that this would fizzle out. He finally got the ten-boat fleet away two and a half hours after the scheduled time.

That race was to be abandoned before the tail-enders had passed through the leeward gate – a wise decision – and the competitors were forced to hang around until four hours after the scheduled start before racing was finally abandoned for the day. The helicopters, for the television cameras, had been up and down several times and the seats in the 'bleachers' were hardly filled. Not a day for the punters or one that did anything to raise public perception of the sport.

Qingdao Olympic Regatta 2008. Ainslie (GBR) and Railey (USA) definitely not talking to each other today. Finn Medal Race (abandoned).
For the cognoscenti what did take place for twenty minutes after the race had started was fascinating. It was the stuff of high drama. It was known that the only threat to a gold medal for Ben Ainslie was if Zach Railey were to win and the British sailor was last. Therefore Ainslie took the matter into his own hands by latching on to the American in the pre-start and then sitting on him firmly throughout the first beat.

It was grand theatre. Merciless and savage, it was the act of a man plainly saying: 'You are not going to win MY gold medal!' While the sailors would appreciate the finer points of this, the average viewer, appalled by the lack of action would have already switched off.

It brooks the question: 'Why do we have to sail first class events on fourth class tracks?' And why is sailing so beholden to television that it needs medal races in the first place. It managed to define its champions for many years without this artificial finale.