SAILORS SET FAIR FOR MEDAL HAUL

25 July 2004

Brough Scott joins Ben Ainslie and Co in Greece and finds that they have left nothing to chance for the Games

On Tuesday the space-age, dozing-dog-destroying tram began its first full day of service along the sun-scorched coast from Glyfada to Athens. Its efficiency dared to suggest that perhaps the Greeks might be ready for the Olympics after all. On its way it passed the headquarters of the British sailing team. They have been ready for years.

Well, they have had a base here, in an easy-going, if slightly baffled Greek sailing club, since 2001. But their Olympic success goes back a lot further. They have won medals at every Games since 1980, and Sydney’s haul of three golds and two silvers was the best in any British sport. It hasn’t happened by chance or just “jolly good boating weather”.

“Of course it’s not down to luck,” said Rod Carr, who was the no-nonsense moustachioed Olympic sailing team manager from 1984-96, was performance director of the Sydney team, and is now chief executive of the Royal Yachting Association, British sailing’s governing body. “In 1984, there was an Olympic committee of 16 people with their decisions referred to RYA council with very good cruising and canal boat people on it. That’s got nothing to do with winning medals.

“Today we have got a professional manager with a small `non-exec’ board who don’t get paid but are expert at the narrow area of winning medals. The general RYA council have the confidence to let them get on with it, not get bogged down in the treacle of governance. We have to be focused, clear, fast; we have to adopt winning strategies, to take risks and, frankly, that doesn’t come by sitting round a table with 20 people.”

These sailors are very genial and open, but my, they are organised. On Tuesday morning Carr trotted out the team manager Steve Parks to outline the details of his campaign and his confederates. We had coaches Ian Walker and Dave Howlett to give insights to Sydney gold medallists Shirley Robertson, Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie, all now back but in different boats. Physiologist Pete Cunningham gave fearsome outlines of training regimes: Ainslie has put on 10kg of muscle in the past two years, Percy would be lifting 140kg (22 stone) in a standard session that evening. Windsurfer Nick Dempsey has a schedule the equivalent of running four three-hour marathons in six days. There was even Fiona Campbell, the weather girl (sorry, meteorologist) to tell us about the off-shore wind called `Meltemi’.

Then we moved to a shaded beach-side canteen to meet the athletes (or `sailors’ but never `yachtsmen’) themselves. Robertson spoke of the challenge of adapting from her single-handed Europe class dinghy to the three woman Yngling (it means `youth’ in Norwegian). Crewmates Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton explained about trust and decision-making.

Ainslie talked of “three dimensional chess” on water in that quiet gentle way so different from the aggressive killer he is in a boat. Percy and Mitchell list the astonishing mixture of physical conditioning, technical tuning and nautical assessment which makes their Star class one of the most demanding of all.

We moved up to the roof to dine alfresco beneath wide umbrellas with the Safonic Gulf shimmering below us. This thirsty hack sipped guiltily at his wine as gold medal hopes Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks spoke of the need for agility and reactions as they hurl their rocketing 49er skiff like a giant double windsurfer around the sea. And the Tornado pairing of Leigh McMillan and Mark Bulkely explained what happens when the fastest boat on the ocean turns a somersault at a gybe.

But that was still just talk. It was when we took to the water that we could at least begin to understand. The big `rib’ (high-powered rubber dinghy) can get to almost 30mph but, up ahead, McMillan and Bulkely’s Tornado was actually knifing away from us.

The Meltemi was freshening, the streets and monuments of Athens stretched hazily away to the mountains. A Greek navy destroyer was anchored in the bay, with a swooping helicopter overhead reminding you of the security challenge to come, just as the glimpse of the Parthenon on its distant hill recalled the history these sea-born athletes now pursue.

The 49er swept down and tacked just in front of us. At once Draper and Hiscocks went from arched extensions on the trapeze to skipping, ducking monkeys as they altered course and wound furiously at the sheets. We hammered across to where Percy and Mitchell were working in the Star. They are both bright graduates, but part of what they are readying themselves for is an almost primitive contest between the elements, their arch-rivals Loof and Ekstrom of Sweden, and themselves. As they pass, Percy is braced at the helm, Mitchell is `hiking’, his hands behind his head, his legs braced inboard, his whole 98kg upper body pushing back to help the boat fight through the waves.

Robertson and the two Sarahs take a soaking as they come by, their faces creased in those smiles which are relish-hard not pleasure-soft. Ainslie wears one too. Even more than the others the boat has become an extension of himself as he battles up into wave and wind. There will be other lives for all of them. There may well be fortune, for some there already is fame. But for now the only aim that matters was first thought of more than 2,500 years ago, away on that ancient hill.

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