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Olympics: Can the Antipodeans get back the five medals dropped at Tokyo2020?

by Richard Gladwell, 31 Aug 06:53 PDT 1 September 2021
The Last Olympic Waltz - A crowded finish to the Medal Race in the Finn class - Tokyo2020 - Day 9 - August 2, 2021 - Enoshima, Japan. © Richard Gladwell - / nz

When the medal table was added up, Tokyo2020 proved to be the proverbial game of snakes and ladders for the 17 countries who divvied up the 30 medals.

Enoshima was a European benefit. Nine European nations increased their medal haul from Rio. Oceania was the biggest loser with Australia and New Zealand landing on the snakes and dropping a combined five medals between them. The Enoshima dice rolled the way of Britain, Germany and Spain - with all landing on ladders that gained each two more medals than Rio2016. China was the only nation outside Europe to come away with an increased medal count.

All told, European sailing nations won 24 medals in Japan compared to 18 in Rio de Janeiro.

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.

Australia won two Gold Medals in Tokyo2020 - winning the Mens Laser for the third successive Olympiad, and medalled again in the Mens 470. However the latter will be replaced with a Mixed event in 2024.

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 if more than just single boat/board campaigns are to be supported.

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. The same happened with the RS:X, for both the Mens and Womens Windsurfer events.

Luckily 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, light helm indicates more focus on physique selection - like other Olympic sports.

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

But the bottom line for New Zealand is 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 ends of the trip.

The heavy over-booking in MIQ means that New Zealand athletes are effectively prisoners in their own country, until quarantine-free international resumes. Until that issue is resolved, New Zealand's international sailing program is stuck in irons.

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 given many of the Nacra 17 teams 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 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. It is galling to see the place get 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. Shirley Robertson (GBR) finished 9th and 4th in her first two Olympic regattas and then won back to back Gold medals in the Europe dinghy and Yngling keelboat in 2004 and 2008.

For first timers Olympic experience is vital if they are to medal in subsequent Olympiads. Worst case, the current Olympic sailor's result provides a benchmark for the fleet at home.

Certainly, the genuine medal prospects need to be properly funded, but that is a management issue as to how the funding is split up.

An opportunity to reflect

The daily highlight of spending a couple of weeks in MIQ (Quarantine) on return from Tokyo2020, was listening to double Olympic Gold medalist Shirley Robertson's podcasts. They more than filled the nearly three hours a day of self-absorbed trudging on the gravel of the exercise yard, before going back into solitary quarantine for the 21 hours. (Yes, MIQ is tough mentally.)

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. There's 16 Olympic Gold medals in that line-up alone.

There are some common themes running through their stories. While the Gold medalists admit to having some degree of natural 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. From the podcasts, it is surprising how many of the top sailors had their first Olympic exposure while in their late teens or early 20's. Many of them were training partners for the Olympic incumbent.

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. Percy also coached the GB Nacra 17 crew at Tokyo2020. 470 Silver medalist Ian Walker is Director of Racing for the Royal Yachting Association. 2008 Silver medalist and former World Champion, Stevie Morrisson coached the British 49er crew who won the Gold.

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

They're a great starting point for anyone with Olympic aspirations for Paris 2024 and LA28.

Get on the Road to Gold

While you're genning up your sailing and racing skills check out the Road to Gold series series put together by leading journalist Andy Rice and top Olympic coach Hamish Willcox.

"Road to Gold is going really well," Willcox told Sail-World before the Kiwi Olympic team departure. "Every second person I bump into in Europe seems to have bought and loves it. The take-up has been really good."

"Initially we did it just to leave a coaching legacy. I'm going to step out of this role at some stage - and we all know that you lose about 30% of what you know in 18 months. The idea was to get the knowledge down while it was fresh, and while I am still active in coaching. We wanted to leave a knowledge base for sailors coming through."

"The whole point of it is to get good information out into the corners of the world so that anyone, anywhere can mount an Olympic campaign with the information and structure they need to do it well.

"It can go anywhere, its a pathway to success, as well as being a sequential learning tool. There is no point at learning stuff at the end of the road before you've learnt the basics at the beginning. That sequential approach is important. We've got a test that allows you to measure yourself across the whole pathway and you can see where your gaps are.

"What most people don't realise is where their gaps are - and that is where coaches come in. Road to Gold is a self-coaching tool which allows you to do it yourself," he added.

To access Road to Gold click here, it's the best investment you'll ever make in yourself.

Or click here to listen to Hamish's podcast from Yachting NZ's Broad Reach Radio series

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