Roll Tacks - September 2008

As I write, it's been two weeks since I got back from Qingdao, but still my head is buzzing from some of the memories. It was intense, and it was emotional. It was actually a very good regatta - certainly compared with what we were expecting.

I've been very rude about Qingdao over the past two or three years, and long had I been praying for a regatta where people could tell us: "It's not normally like this!" Thankfully we got that, to some extent. USA's 49er helm Tim Wadlow told me it was the first time he'd realised the city was twice as big as he'd thought, because he could actually see the southern half of the city less than a mile from where we were standing in the Olympic boatpark. Sarah Ayton said more or less the same, noting that they'd barely seen a horizon in the three years she been visiting the venue.

Fog and weed were expected to be there in abundance, yet it wasn't too bad on either score. The Chinese deserve special praise for their management of the algae bloom. Every morning at 5am a flotilla of 300 fishing boats went out to scour the course for weed, and there were another 400 boats on standby if the problem was acute. Not that there was much likelihood of a problem because of the 20-mile protective boom that enclosed the five race courses. Having said that, from the helicopter TV shots you could still see patches of the stuff, even just a few metres off some of the start lines, but I never heard any of the sailors complain about it. I think they were just thankful that they weren't sailing through green carpets of the stuff like they had been in training a few weeks earlier.

Then there was the anticipated lack of wind. Well, let's face it, there were some races that were started in conditions that normally would be considered plain unsailable. The aborted Finn Medal Race was a case in point. Watching the TV footage of Ben Ainslie - greatest sailor in the world - drifting sideways downwind (make that downtide) with his sail hanging useless in the still air, that was just plain embarrassing. Thank goodness sense prevailed and it was abandoned to be resailed the following day, in 18 knots' wind and big seas. Awesome stuff.

The Laser Medal Race was not great though. When I'm watching curling on the Winter Olympics, I struggle to see the skill involved. It looks like a bunch of middle-aged cleaning ladies performing their janitorial duties on ice. I'm sure there's a little more to it than that, but it's still a yawn-inducing stuff. I fear that when the public is watching Laser sailors competing in 3 knots of wind that similar thoughts are running through their mind. As sailors, we know there is still immense skill involved in getting the best out of your boat in those conditions, but thrilling or enticing TV it ain't. Still, what it lacked in speed or pace, the Laser Medal Race made up for with the ruthless display by Paul Goodison in defending his gold medal from Sweden's Rasmus Myrgren. Having sailed a blinder of a day leading up to the Medal Race, with scores of 1,4,6 from the three races, Goody went into the Medal Race assured of silver. There was a mathematical possibility of Myrgren stealing gold provided that he won the race and Goody finished dead last.

Having missed a medal by a point in Athens, Goody took no chances and match raced the Swede in the pre-start, although it has to be said Myrgren did himself no favours by starting well behind the line. Goody kept him pegged well back behind the rest of the fleet, who were long gone. Myrgren ended up with a medal of no colour whatsoever. A harsh conclusion for a sailor that went into the Medal Race in second place overall.

I have no beef with Goody, in fact I admire the clinical way that he went about securing gold, but it was harsh to see Myrgren dealt such an injustice. As the Swede pointed out to me afterwards, it would have been better if he could have elected to add a point to his qualifying score so that he went into the Medal Race posing no possible threat to the gold. That way Goody would have let the Swede race it out with the other contenders for silver and bronze. The current system needs addressing, in my view. Taking your closest competitor so far out of the game that it lets the chasing pack through for medals is not what it should be about, although there are others who see it as fair game and all part of the sport. Well, under current rules, of course that's the case. But does it make it right? In my view the winner of the event should be the sailor who sailed best, the runner-up the person who sailed second-best, and so on. Some sort of natural justice needs to take place on the race course, otherwise what is the point?

While the current rules exist - ie ones that permit match racing - then you certainly don't want to come up against a Brit. In four Medal Races the Brits exerted match racing moves on their rivals to come out ahead. Ben Ainslie did it to Zach Railey in the Finn, much more so in the aborted race than the eventual Medal Race because he went off to win the race comfortably. It was similar in the Ynglings when Sarah Ayton harried the Netherlands' Mandy Mulder in the pre-start and covered her up the first beat until moving ahead to win the race. Goody did his thing to his Swedish rival, and Percy and Bart match raced their Swedish rivals out of the Star Medal Race.

The Medal Race posed a very different challenge to the sailors compared with any previous Olympic Regatta. It requires a much more aggressive ‘go-getting' psychology than the ‘slowly slowly catchee monkey' type of mentality that you can employ across a typical one-discard race series. The Brits were very good at playing the game of patience during the qualifying series, biding their time when the luck went against them and pouncing on opportunities when the luck came their way. Then when the Medal Race came along, they flicked a switch and went into aggressive mode, exerting their will on the race, taking risks and making them pay. The Brits are rightly seen as the mentally toughest team in the Olympic boat park.

Watching how some sailors rise to the occasion while others crumple under the pressure is what makes the Olympics such a fascinating contest. One competitor who particularly impressed was USA's Finn representative Zach Railey. There was nothing in the form book to suggest Railey would be a serious contender for a medal, but he led for most of the week until Ben finally got the better of him. He was the only sailor who ran Ben remotely close for the gold medal and certainly deserved his silver.
Others looked like they had blown a gasket before the regatta even began. The national flag stickers that every competitor was required to put on their mainsail proved all a little too much for Norway's Finn diva, Per Moberg. He got so frustrated he ended up screwing up not just the Norwegian sticker into a ball, but his precious mainsail too. Having later calmed down from his rage, he then had to go with his tail between his legs to the measurement committee to request if he could submit a replacement sail.

Now it should be pointed out that Moberg is not a complete idiot. He won a bronze medal (behind Robert Scheidt and Ben Ainslie) in the Laser in 1996. But maybe all that extra work in the gym to get up to weight for the Finn has produced a surplus of testosterone that sometimes manifests itself in ugly ways. Aside from the scrunched-up sail saga, Moberg also found himself in hot water half way through the regatta. Canadian representative Chris Cook protested Moberg for a mark-rounding incident. Moberg failed to appear at the hearing, so Cook was able to present his case unchallenged.

Aside from the mark rounding incident, Cook alleged Moberg to have used abusive language and even made threats against the Canadian, not only during the incident, but even after they crossed the finish line some time later. Based on Cook's evidence, the Jury not only gave the Norwegian a DNE (Disqualified Non-Excludable - ie, a non-discardable disqualification) but also levelled a Rule 69 protest against him. Even Moberg decided to turn up to that hearing, and offered an impressive reason for not being able to attend the previous hearing - that he had been entertaining King Harald of Norway at the time. A pretty good excuse, but an excuse nevertheless.

Once Moberg got in the room he must have done a pretty good job of charming the jury as he successfully batted away the Rule 69 protest and managed to get his DNE reduced to a slightly more respectable DSQ. I don't like to judge people I haven't met personally, but it was interesting to note how other former rivals of Moberg came out of the woodwork on online forums to heap further opprobrium on the Norwegian's head. Not a popular chap, it seems.

Emilios Papathanasiou is another Finn sailor capable of self-destruction - although his preferred poison is a self-inflicted RR42 infringement. Treading the fine line of legal and illegal kinetics in slow boats like Finns is fraught with danger, and I've laid out my views on the inappropriately harsh penalties given to RR42 transgressors many times before in Roll Tacks. However, those being the rules that you are asked to operate under, then most of us alter our behaviour accordingly. Not Emilios. He is a law unto himself.

It was interesting watching the first day of Finn racing out in Qingdao. As I sat next to the Daily Telegraph's Tim Jeffery watching Papathanasiou cross the finish line of the first race in first place, having just seen Ben dumped from 1st to 10th on the final run, Tim said: "That was the perfect start to the regatta." I assumed he was talking from Emilios's perspective, but no, Tim was thinking from Ben's point of view. He predicted Emilios would self-destruct. We didn't have to wait long. In the second race, Emilios picked up not one, but two, RR42 infringements on the final run to the finish. He picked up two further penalties during the course of the regatta. So even after he discarded one DSQ, he still had to carry two DNEs in his score, in among a bunch of other more respectable scores.

In the past Emilios has taken on-the-water umpires to court over picking up RR42 penalties, so I asked him if he was considering doing the same for the Olympics. He didn't rule it out, although I'm sure we'd have heard something by now if he was going to do anything. I have to say, despite his reputation, I couldn't help but take a liking to Emilios. Mad as a box of frogs, but likeable nonetheless. And, a bit like the injustices of some of the Medal Races, I hope that Emilios's plight (albeit self-inflicted) draws ISAF's attention to the mis-match between RR42 crimes and punishments.

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