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Andy Rice's Countdown To Rio

Andy Rice's Countdown To Rio

With the Olympic sailing regatta at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games taking place in the summer, Olympic Classes guru Andy Rice brings up to speed with what’s been happening on the Olympic campaign trail since London 2012 and makes some predictions of who he thinks will be standing atop the podium in Brazil this August.

I don’t know about you, but the more professional a sport becomes, the smaller the margins of victory, and therefore the more potential winners you’re going to have. Right? Except that when we look at the likely medal winners at the Olympic sailing regatta this August at Rio 2016, there are some very, very firm favourites. Here are my - and many other people’s - picks for the gold medal in four of the 10 Olympic classes:

FOUR FIRM FAVOURITES

49er - Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL). Since ‘losing’ to Australians Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen for the gold medal at London 2012, and taking the silver medal, the two young Kiwis have been unstoppable. They have won the past four World Championships, and their most recent world title at Clearwater, Florida this year, took their unbeaten streak to 23 international regatta victories, stretching back to the last Games in August 2012. 

Jen Edney

Jen Edney

The Aussies look likely to be the best of the rest, with a number of nations also in the hunt for a minor medal, including Denmark, Austria, Germany, Poland and Great Britain.

Nacra 17 - Billy Besson and Marie Riou (FRA). Although they can’t match the perfect winning streak of the Kiwi 49er sailors, the French duo equal Burling and Tuke for four consecutive world titles in this new Olympic class. They won this year’s World Championship at Clearwater with two races to spare, and were simply in a different class to the rest of the fleet. The scrap for silver and bronze could go any number of ways, although the most likely contenders look to be Italy, Denmark and Australia.

470 Men - Mat Belcher learned how to dominate the 470 class after teaming up with 2008 Olympic Champion Malcolm Page. Together, Belcher and Page were the masters of the last Olympic cycle leading up to London 2012 where they collected the gold medal that Australia expected of them. Since Page’s retirement and Belcher’s new partnership with the young Will Ryan, the Aussies have hardly broken stride. Page has won six 470 World Championships on the trot, three with Page and three with Ryan.

The slight fly in the Aussie ointment is that they only finished third at this year’s Worlds in Argentina, where Croatia’s Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic won their second world title (they last won in 2009). Other nations in the hunt include New Zealand, Great Britain, France and the USA. 

Finn - Giles Scott has only won three of the past five Finn Gold Cups, although many of his rivals would concede that if the British sailor hadn’t been absent on 35th America’s Cup duty with Luna Rossa, he probably would have five out of five. There are also those that argue that if he had been selected ahead of Ben Ainslie for London 2012, the 1.98m tall Scott probably would have won gold with a race to spare. These days Scott is sailing with - instead of against - Ainslie as his former rival’s tactician on board Land Rover BAR Racing. But this year for Scott it is all about bringing back the gold medal from Rio 2016. Other likely medal contenders include Croatia, France, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

BLAME IT ON RIO

Such is the dominance by the aforementioned athletes in their chosen classes, it’s hard to imagine these four gold medals going any other way - except that we’re talking about Rio. The dreaded Nothe Course - the spectator-friendly Medal Race course area at Weymouth four years ago - was notoriously fickle. But apart from that, Weymouth pretty much lived up to its billing as a strong-wind and largely predictable venue.

The topography of Rio de Janeiro - not least the proximity of the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain to the more inshore race courses - makes it much harder to pick out any rhyme or reason to the workings of Rio’s swirling wind. The big favourites will just have to hope that they get in a full series of races, and that the luck evens out across the fleet. That’s certainly how the reigning Laser World Champion from Great Britain is looking at it.

“I’m starting to think more and more that actually sometimes there are days where you just don’t know [what the wind is doing],” says Nick Thompson. “It’s something that we sailors try very hard to address, and think that there’s always an answer, there’s always a solution - you will always know which side is likely to pay and what’s going to happen. But actually I’m starting to understand more that often that this isn’t always the case; there isn’t a definitive answer and you aren’t really going to know what’s going to happen. 

“So, I think accepting that - and addressing the way you sail slightly differently - is the key to Rio. I think it’s a numbers game and it’s about playing percentages and almost back to the basics of sailing. If you can cross – you cross, if not – you perhaps look for a little bit more, but you never put yourself out there or take too many risks.”

No doubt the overseas competitors will be paying close attention to where the local Brazilian sailors are going. While the legendary five-time Olympic medal winner Torben Grael is no longer actively competing on the Olympic scene, the Grael family is well represented at Rio 2016. Torben’s daughter Martine Grael will start as one of the favourites in the 49erFX skiff, crewed by the athletic Kahena Kunze, while Martine’s brother Marco will be steering the 49er crewed by Gabriel Borges, although a Brazilian 49er medal looks less likely than for Martine in the women’s FX fleet.

ADVANCE AUSTRALIA FAIR?

At Sydney 2000, the British shocked everyone - including themselves - when they came away with five medals, three gold and two silver. Since then it has been a medal bonanza for Team GBR with six medals apiece from Athens and Beijing, and five medals from London 2012. Even with those five medals, there was a slight tinge of disappointment that only one was gold, won in the most extraordinary circumstances by that most extraordinary of sailors, Ben Ainslie.

Although GBR won the most medals, the Olympic medal table is judged strictly by number of golds, using the silvers and bronzes as tiebreakers. By that measure, Australia was top nation with three golds and one silver at London 2012, and Brazil was second with its two gold medals in the women’s RS-X and women’s match racing, relegating Great Britain to third in its own backyard.

So how will Australia fare this time round? The men’s 470 gold looks pretty secure, although we’ve already suggested that Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen will be hard pushed to beat the Kiwis for 49er gold. While the 49er duo are trying to devote as much time as possible to their Olympic campaign, it has to pay second fiddle to their day job, sailing for Artemis Racing in the build-up to the 2017 America’s Cup. Burling and Tuke also sail for their respective Cup team, Emirates Team New Zealand, although the young Kiwis don’t hold the same managerial responsibilities within the team as the Aussies do in the Swedish camp. 

Based on current form, it’s unrealistic for the Aussies to expect more than silver at Rio 2016.
Tom Slingsby has not even tried to do what his 49er mates are attempting. While Slingsby has said he’d like to campaign a Finn for the Olympics, he has devoted himself entirely to his role as sailing manager at Oracle Team USA for this four-year cycle. Not that Australia is lacking for world-class Laser talent - with their number one, Tom Burton, being pushed hard by the likes of Matthew Wearn. Burton has won gold and bronze at the two Olympic Test Regattas in Rio, so he will start as one of the favourites, but not the clear favourite like Slingsby was four years ago.

Australia has a few other opportunities in some of the other classes, such as the young Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin in the Nacra 17, but it’s hard to see any single nation dominating the medal table at Rio 2016. The London 2012 Games was a swan song for many of GBR’s leading lights, with the likes of Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy, the late Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson and Paul Goodison all moving on to the America’s Cup, and making way for a new generation of British sailors. But for the first time in more than a decade, GBR won’t start the Olympic Regatta as favourites. If anything, France could be top dog this time round, with Besson and Riou leading the charge in the Nacra, and very strong prospects in both the men’s and women’s RS-X windsurfing divisions.

It has been slim pickings in recent years for historically strong Olympic sailing nations such as Italy, Germany and the USA, and it’s still hard to see these countries picking up more than one or two medals from Rio 2016. With many selection trials having already taken place and a number of World Championships happening early in the season, there are few events remaining against which to gauge the competition. The Princess Sofia Trophy in Palma and Hyeres Olympic Week in the south of France are the opening events for the European season and are being used as selection regattas for a number of nations, so we can expect to see most of the big names taking part.

Because the 10-boat Medal Races sailed on short courses are so different to big-fleet racing, sailors are always keen to practise these as often as possible. Meanwhile, in the last few months leading up to the Games, there is a shift in emphasis with training and tuning partners. Former rivals for national selection now become in-house sparring partners, keeping technical secrets within closed walls rather than sharing them with potential rivals at the Olympics. But the one area where everyone needs to work together is in getting racing experience on the waters of Rio, with the coaches regularly organising informal competitions that everyone can benefit from.

THE OTHER SIX

By highlighting the Four Firm Favourites earlier, some sailors might take offence at not being included in that illustrious line-up. Or maybe they might be relieved not to have been jinxed by the commentator’s curse! Anyway, to even things out, here are my picks for the other six Olympic classes.

Laser Radial - The Medal Race at London 2012 was a four-way cliffhanger, with China’s Xu Lijia taking gold just ahead of Marit Bouwmeester of the Netherlands, Belgian sailor Evi van Acker taking bronze and Ireland’s Annalise Murphy just missing out. All four sailors are back for Rio 2016, although Bouwmeester will start as favourite. 

Nothing less than gold will do for an athlete whom some describe as the hardest working sailor on the Olympic circuit. On being congratulated by the Dutch head coach for finishing runner-up at the 2015 Radial Worlds in Oman, Bouwmeester flipped out. “You don’t know me very well if you think I do this to finish second!” was the gist. Bouwmeester got her 2016 season off to a good start with a win at the European Championship in the Canary Islands at the beginning of March. 

Laser - For the first time since the Laser was seen at an Olympic Regatta back in 1996, there is no clear favourite. However, among those tipped for a medal is the very man who won gold in 1996, the legendary Robert Scheidt. Now the wrong side of 40, the Brazilian has kept himself in incredible shape and if anything its his commitment to his young family that is holding him back more than his advanced years. Australia’s Tom Burton, Germany’s Philipp Buhl and Great Britain’s Nick Thompson are among many leading lights in a field that looks more open than ever before.

RS-X Men - Dorian van Rijsselberge ran away with gold at London 2012, although the flying Dutchman can’t rely on the strong Weymouth breezes in Rio. He will be challenged by the likes of 2015 World Champion from France, Pierre Le Coq, and whoever represents Poland, most likely the 2016 World Champion Piotr Myszka. 

RS-X Women - The Chinese have been strong in women’s RS-X racing for some years, not least with Yin Jian’s Olympic gold medal at Beijing 2008. Peina Chen’s 2015 world title bodes well for China later this year, although Spain’s reigning Olympic Champion Marina Alabau will be no pushover. The 2016 World Champion Malgorzata Bialecka is the pick of a very strong Polish squad. France, Great Britain and the Netherlands are also in the medal hunt. 

470 Women - Based on recent form, the battle for 470 women’s medals should come down to a three-way scrap between Austria, Great Britain and New Zealand. Austria’s Lara Vadlau and Jolanta Ogar won the 2015 World Championships ahead of GBR’s Olympic silver medallists Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, who will be looking for London 2012 revenge over the reigning Olympic Champions from New Zealand, Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie. However, a surprise victory in the 2016 World Championship by Camille Lecointre and Helene Defrance, shows the French may have found the form to upset the big three.

Jen Edney

Jen Edney

49erFX - In the four years since the 49erFX came into existence there have been four different World Champions. No single team has dominated although Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze will start Rio 2016 as favourites, with a home waters advantage and arguably the most consistent performance of this Olympic cycle. Giulia Conti and Francesca Clapcich won last year’s European and World titles, making the Italians hot medal prospects, while a 2016 world title in Florida for Tamara Echegoyen and Berta Betanzos signifies big recent improvements in this Spanish team’s form. A surprise Olympic gold in the women’s keelboat match racing at London 2012 suggests Echegoyen thrives under the pressure of the big occasion. Other nations to watch include Denmark and New Zealand.

Andy Rice is an ex-Olympic campaigner, renowned yachting journalist and owner/editor of the Sailjuice website

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