Roll Tacks - 1 December 2011

If a fleet racing championship comes down to a two-horse race, it turns into a match race, right? We’ve seen it enough times that it must be OK.  

A few months ago I wrote about Andy ‘Taxi’ Davis and Tom Pygall’s ruthless dispatch of Geoff Carveth and Graham Williamson in the final heat of the Merlin Rocket Nationals at Hayling Island. A one-on-one match race was the only way that Taxi was going to make Geoff’s average points award from earlier in the week start to work against him.  

The most famous (or notorious, if you’re from Brazil) example of this was Ben Ainslie’s harsh treatment of Robert Scheidt in the deciding heat of the Sydney Olympic Games in the Laser. Again, like the Merlin situation, the only way that Ben could beat Scheidt to the gold was if he made the Brazilian count a bad score. Scheidt refused to acknowledge Ben for some years afterwards, and the newspaper reporting of that event was quite different in Brazil to what it was in Britain.  

When it’s a two-horse race, a straight battle for 1st and 2nd like the two cases above, I don’t really have a problem with this. Where it gets ugly, in my view, is where the leader applies so much pressure on the 2nd placed boat that it displaces them further down the rankings. There was an example of this at the Sydney Games, when Iain Percy sat on his closest rival Freddie Loof, allowing the Italian Luca Devoti to come up to silver, with the Swede pushed back to bronze.  

At least he got a medal. In Qingdao 2008 it was even worse when Paul Goodison sat on Rasmus Myrgren (another Swede!) and pushed him back from silver out of the medals altogether. Myrgren’s ‘crime’ was that he was the only one who had a theoretical shot at beating Goody for gold, so Goody pulled out all the stops to insure against the unlikely possibility of being beaten.  

Ben Ainslie was keeping a close eye on Zach Railey going into the Finn Medal Race in China, although in the end Ben so dominated the windy race and led it home by a country mile that he didn’t need to focus on the American. If he had attacked Railey, the American could hardly have complained, as he had spent the previous day camping on the Frenchman Guillaume Florent and pushing him down the fleet to widen the points gap going into the Medal Race.  

It’s a hard world out there. Just how it is. But should it be like that? This question doesn’t get asked that much in this country, maybe because the Brits have been most ruthless perpetrators of the match-race-within-the-fleet-race approach. If it’s in the rules, it’s fine, isn’t it? Well, yes it is, which is why I don’t blame any of the sailors mentioned here.  

But it doesn’t necessarily make it right. There’s a sense of natural justice here that isn’t being followed, ie. why should the second-best sailor be penalised by the top sailor, allowing the third- and fourth-best sailors to rise up the rankings on to the podium? Judging by the very mixed reaction to Taxi’s demolition of Carveth at the Merlins last year, I’m not the only one to have views on the subject.  

This problem was brought into sharper relief at the ISAF Worlds in Perth recently. For many nations, this was an Olympic trial regatta, the German women 470 sailors included. Tina Lutz and Susann Beucke were doing very nicely early on in the championship, while their rivals Kathrin Kadelbach and Friederike Belcher had a poor start, picking up a black flag disqualification in the first race. However, the way the German trials were structured, and with Kadelbacher already with a good score in the bank from Kiel Week last year, she took the view that the best way now to win the trials would be to stop Lutz from getting into the top 20 in Perth. She proceeded to do a very good job of sailing Lutz down the fleet in successive races. Job done. Lutz finished 20th, a few places in front of her rival, but Kadelbach won the trials.  

Except that now the level of hate mail and negative press Kadelbach has received back in Germany has really shocked her. By her own actions, she has brought enormous pressure on to her shoulders and if she doesn’t come back from Weymouth with a medal then her nation may never forgive her.  

This is an ugly state of affairs, but as far as I can tell, nobody in a position of influence sees any reason to question the status quo. My view is that the rules should be changed to prevent one-on-one match racing within a fleet racing regatta. The Racing Rules should follow a sense of natural justice. Judging by the backlash against Kadelbach, there are many in Germany who believe that not to be the case. ISAF should address this urgently before the next Games. Ben Ainslie’s impression of an angry Tom Daley grabbed all the headlines in Perth, but what happened in the German 470 trials is actually the much bigger deal for our sport.  




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