29 August 2004
Sailing won two gold medals and, in all, five medals from just 11 events, to make it once again Britain’s most successful Olympic sport. This week they were not just celebrating, they were looking ahead to Beijing.
“We have been checking the weather in Quingdao, (the 2008 Olympic sailing site on Fushan Bay, 430 miles east of Beijing) this week,“ said team manager Stephen Park. “It has been just six to seven knots and 29 degrees, but with 80 per cent humidity, which will make it seem like 40 degrees. We are preparing for a pretty punishing, light wind, programme.”
Park and performance director John Derbyshire have already been out to Quingdau, have scheduled meetings with the Chinese next week, and will be out East again before Christmas. The title Royal Yachting Association may have a leisurely, blazered ring about it, but in action this is an operation of intense commitment and magnificent organisation, dealing with everything from nationwide youth schemes to the multi-dimensional Olympic programme which now has this latest medal haul.
Park, Derbyshire and Chief Executive Rod Carr marry a deep-rooted passion for their sport with a clear, long-term vision for the way ahead. It is a trick other Olympic disciplines look on with envy and Carr likes it that way. “We aim to be the best-prepared team of all,“ he says. “It is absolutely fundamental to what we do, whether it be in logistics, fitness or strategy. We want the other teams, other sports to look across and say: ‘I wish our team were prepared like that’. We want to be on it and to be seen to be on it. It is all part of the winning ethos.”
What is hugely significant is the way athletes and officials have developed through the RYA’s system. At the Sydney Olympics, Carr was the team manager, Stephen Park the coach to 49er silver-medallists. “We have a natural progression,” says Carr, “and we aim to keep it that way. That’s why we put so much emphasis on our youth programme. All our medallists have come through that and it was very satisfying that we were the most successful nation at this year’s youth world championships as well as at this year’s games.”
“To makes things work you need three things,” he continues, “the system, the talent and the money. We have had the first two for some time but with the lottery funding we have been able to up our act. Winning on demand is terribly difficult to do, especially in sailing, which is why we spend so much time trying to cut down on the variables. What was so good about this Olympics is that the team performed really well in light wind conditions, which do not traditionally suit them. Ten or 12 years ago we would have been out of the frame. Winning medals here in five different classes is proof of our progress. We can’t just rely on a genius like Ben Ainslie.”
The next step is to spread the recruiting net even wider. On Sept 14th at the Southampton Boat Show the RYA will announce a new ‘On Board’ programme to spread sailing to schools all around the country, an initiative warmly endorsed by Sports Minister Richard Caborn in Athens this week. “People talk about youth programmes, but we really mean it,” says Carr, “sailing offers fun, challenge, excitement and responsibility. There are puddles and lakes and harbours all over the country. You can sail to race or sail on your own, and you can do it from eight to 80. We believe sailing has a huge amount to offer.”
Sixteen years ago Nick Dempsey went on his local lake near Peterborough and tried a windsurfer. On Wednesday afternoon he sat tired but triumphant in a chair at the Aghios Cosmos sailing centre, having added a bronze medal to the gold his fiancee, Sarah Ayton, won in the Yingling last Saturday. “I have had to work unbelievably hard,” he said, massive greeny-yellow callouses on his hands calling out as witness, “but the support work in the squad has been unbelievable. We have such an advantage over other nations. It’s not just the money, it’s the way they spend it, putting the athletes first and having such a good youth structure.”