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Can anyone beat Ainslie?

by Robert Deaves on 25 Jul 2008
Ben Ainslie - Finn European Championship 2008 James Taylor

If all goes according to plan, on August 16 the 15th set of Olympic Finn medals since 1952 will be decided on the waters off Qingdao, China. The Finn class has the distinction of being chosen for the Olympic regatta more times consecutively than any other class. First sailed in 1952 in Helsinki when Paul Elvström won the second of his four gold medals, 2008 marks the class's 15th appearance on the Olympic stage.

For most Finn sailors competing in China, the campaign trail started at the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Cascais, Portugal in July last year. In Cascais the first 19 countries qualified for a place in Qingdao. Many of those assembled in Cascais had recently finished sailing in the 32nd America's Cup, just across the border in Valencia and had been training hard on their days off to prepare for what turned into a challenging week of racing.

Rafael Trujillo (ESP), silver medalist in 2004 in Athens went on to win his first major championship, after a thrilling medal race. The depth of the fleet was underlined by the fact that the other 18 places for China all came from with the top 26 overall, making it very difficult to qualify at the first try.

One man who was absent from Cascais was the 2004 Olympic champion Ben Ainslie. Ainslie didn't reappear on the Finn scene until the Olympic Test Event in Qingdao a few months later after he was able to put in enough training to be confident with his performance. He needn't have worried as he won the event, although perhaps not as decisively as he had the year before, when he won with an almost unbroken string of first places. But Ainslie was back and the other sailors were set the challenge of raising their game if they were to stand half a chance.

Six months after Cascais, on the other side of the world at Black Rock YC on Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, Australia, the final six places were decided, while China, as host got a guaranteed place to make up the 26 starters. In the run up to the 2008 Finn Gold Cup, Ainslie took the Sydney International Regatta, the Australian Nationals and Sail Melbourne before going on to win an unprecedented fifth Finn Gold Cup as well as his berth for China.

Following Melbourne, two countries whose sailors had technically qualified for a place failed to confirm their participation in China. First Germany turned down their place and this was offered to India. In the past two year, this fledging Finn nation has produced two Finn sailors, both challenging for an Olympic berth.

Trials were organised in India with a two boat race off between Nachhatar Johal and Nitin Mongia. Each day they won one race apiece. On the final day, Johal took the race win and with it the ticket to Qingdao. Johal was the first of two sailors who received assistance from the IFA's FIDeS development programme as part of his campaign for China.

The other sailor in Qingdao whose place wasn't confirmed was Florian Raudaschl (AUT). He had to wait until his 9th place at the Delta-Lloyd Regatta in Medemblik to assure himself a place. However after finishing 18th in Kiel, his national Olympic Committee reversed the decision. Only as late as 23 July did the final place out of the 26 get allocated. It finally went to Johnny Bilbao (VEN) on the basis of his performance at the Finn Gold Cup in Melbourne. Bilbao also received help from FIDeS in attending the Olympic qualifier in Melbourne.

Back in Europe, Ainslie took Palma, Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) took Hyeres, Trujillo took the Delta Lloyd Regatta while Ed Wright (GBR) took Kiel Week. Ainslie returned for the European Championship, which he won after a thrilling medal race to reverse an eight point gap between himself and Guillaume Florent (FRA). If ever there was an indication of Ainslie's complete competence in the Finn, this was it, overcoming what seemed like an impossible task.

About the Finn

The Finn came into being as the result of a 1949 design competition to produce a singlehanded dinghy for Scandinavian and Olympic competition. It was then first used at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. The Finn used to be one of the few classes that had supplied gear at the Olympics. Up until 1976 the Olympic organisers supplied all the gear, but from 1972 onwards sailors were allowed to bring their own rigs, and since 2000 their own hulls as well.

While hulls are largely standard production models these days, the key to developing speed in the Finn has always been for careful selection of masts and sails as sailors tailor their rigs to their own weight and individual sailing styles.

Rumours coming out of Qingdao so far indicate that a few sailors are testing new gear for the Olympic competition, though whether any of it will actually be used in anger remains to be seen. Also with many sailors having reduced weight for Qingdao, they have also had to modify the response of their rigs to match - and this is much harder to do in practise than in theory. However the weight loss is more often an attempt to be more physical around the boat than for any advantage by being lighter in the boat.

Conditions

While many pundits are predicting light, shifty and current focussed racing in Qingdao, the sailors know anything can happen and most are prepared for whatever the conditions happen to be and expect at least one or more days of significant breeze.

The wind has been over 20 knots on more than one occasion in the past month, so the sailors should get a good mix of conditions.

Of all the 26 sailors heading for Qingdao, only 12 have already tasted the Olympic arena, while 16 have won races at major championships, 18 have placed top ten in major regattas, and 11 have picked up a medal in the past four years either at the Finn Gold Cup, European Championship or Qingdao regattas.

In addition, all except three of the top 20 in the world rankings will be in Qingdao. It could well prove to be one of the toughest Olympic Finn competitions of all time.

While the clear, clear favourite is the five times and current World Champion, four times and current European Champion, three times Olympic medalist and current Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie, the rest of the fleet is sure to have something to say on the matter.

And while the conditions in Qingdao could best be described as tricky, a fourth medal for Ainslie is by no means a foregone conclusion, but perhaps it could be argued that he has the best chance of medaling than any other sailor across all of the other classes heading for China.

The sailors

AUS - Anthony Nossiter
Age: 34
Current World Ranking: 9
Previous Olympics: 2000 (Finn - 13th), 2004 (Finn - 6th)
Best Results: 2007 Finn Gold Cup - 10th, 2003 Finn Gold Cup -8th
2008 Form: Finn Gold Cup - 12th, Delta Lloyd - 8th; Hyeres - 7th; Sail Melbourne - 9th
'Nocka' has been sailing the Finn since 1998 with various forays into the Volvo Ocean Race and the America's Cup, during which time he kept up with his Finn sailing. Although has had many top ten places over the years and world and Grade 1 regattas, never really made it as far as the podium. Big strong sailor who loves windy and wavy conditions, but capable of winning races in anything.

BRA - Eduardo Couto
Age: 24
Current World Ranking: 80
Previous Olympics: None
Best Results: 2008 Europeans - 54th, 2008 Delta Lloyd - 14th
Only moved from the Laser to the Finn for the Brazilian trials earlier this year. He has already made an impression in a few races this year and as one of the lighter sailors in Qingdao may perform well in the lighter conditions. Finished a lowly 54th at the Europeans this year but improving fast. Couto has only competed in four ranking events, hence his low ranking position of 80th.

CAN - Chris Cook
Age: 24
Current World

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