The biggest question rolling around the media center as the 2012 Olympic Regatta gets set to kick off it what in God’s name was going through the mind of Team GBR manager Stephen “Sparky” Park on Friday night. The normally reserved Park, who’s in charge of the biggest juggernaut to ever hit Olympic sailing, seemed a little overcome by the moment as his sailing team (12 of the 16 athletes) was introduced to a crowd of 10,000 people gathered on the Weymouth town beach Friday evening. Upon being called up by BBC television personality Rob Walker, Park pantomimed a slow motion run across the stage before leaping into the arms of the very surprised and very worried Walker. Park easily outweighs the slight Walker by 40 pounds and for it moment it looked as if Walker’s legs would buckle under the load and both would crash to the stage in an awkward embrace. Fortunately, Park put down his legs, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Well everyone except for me, who was looking for something just like that to sprinkle the very slick ceremony with a dash of humility.
Personally, I’m not sure what to make of Park’s performance. If he is truly that relaxed, and he’s able to, through osmosis or some other method, impart that frame of mind upon his sailors, it could bode well for the British team. If on the other hand, this is the early signs of someone just a little bit overwhelmed by the moment, a little too keyed up, then it could be an ominous sign for the British team.
To get a sense of the pressure the sailors will be under this week, one only has to look at Saturday’s Men’s Road Race for the cycling team. The British team, stocked with the first- and second-place finishers from the just-concluded Tour de France, as well as the Manx Missile, sprinter extraordinare Mark Cavendish, was favored for gold. However, the road race is a 250-kilometer minefield of hazards, not to mention the 150 other cyclists waiting to pounce on every opportunity. There is no such thing as a sure bet. Yet when the Brits finished off the podium (behind even the United States, which snared fourth) the news tickers read succinctly that Cavendish and Team GBR missed out on gold, as if it were nearly a foregone conclusion.
If the expectations were that high for the road race, one can only imagine the pressure this country is heaping on the shoulders of someone like Ben Ainslie or Iain Percy or Paul Goodison, all returning gold medalists, all competing in a sport where the nature of the competition allows the cream to rise to the top and rarely does one mistake eliminate a sailor from medal contention.
Park is one of the best in the business, if not the outright best. He manages to keep the veterans happy and motivated and develop young talent at the same time. I am not spending too much time wondering whether he’s cracking under the pressure. But were I a fan of British sailing, I would’ve been a lot more comfortable had he simply walked across the stage, waved to the crowd, and shaken hands with Walker.
There were few surprises in today’s medal race. In the Finn class, Daniel Slater, Jonas Christensen, and Ben Ainslie were the top three after the first lap, with Zach Railey a little off the pace in fourth. Christensen, in particular, looked very quick, jumping out to a lead on the second upwind—Slater retired at the leeward gate—before retiring himself at the windward mark. In the Star, Iain Percy seemed to have the early lead, but Rob Scheidt’s speed stood out. He didn’t have a particularly good start, had to duck a couple of boats halfway up the beat, but was still second at the mark, and then, according to Mark Mendelblatt, ran away from everyone.
Summer, according to one local, was last week. “We had our three days of sun,” he quipped. I’d like to laugh, but I’m a little under prepared for rain and 60 degrees, which is pretty much the forecast for the next week, especially since whatever the temperature is here, it feels at least 10 degrees colder on the water. The British breeze goes right through you. Midweek is expected to bring some serious wind, which could make things interesting. Heavy air isn’t a problem for the favorites, but breakdowns could be. Fortunately the press boats, 35-foot Beneteau trawlers, are among the best press boats I’ve ever seen. Actually scratch that, they are the best, with some nice cozy cabins to retire to and watch the racing through large picture windows while staying nice and dry.
And that’s just one of the ways that this venue has outdone itself. Never before has sailing been so embraced. I always thought Sydney was as good as it could get for sailing, with people packed onto the vantage points on Sydney Harbour and crowded onto thousands of spectator boats. But it’s amazing to see how the town has gone all in for sailing. There are two big screens on the beach, a festival village and event a ticketed spectator location overlooking the Nothe course. If the wind is out of the WSW, as it was today, they plan to use upwind finishes (something new in sailing, they said at today’s media briefing, which brought more than a few snide comments from the veteran sailors and journos in the crowd) to bring the finishes as close as possible to the spectators. It’s great to see sailing get this sort of reception. Between the Amerinca’s Cup in Newport and this, sailing might just have a future as a spectator sport after all.
On tap for today:
Finns, Races 1 and 2. The first race will be at noon, the first official race of the regatta, and on the Nothe course. Zach Railey said this direction is extremely shifty since the course is in the lee of some significant hills; 40-degree shifts are not uncommon. The second race will be on Weymouth Bay West, one of the offshore courses, with the start at 1330.
Stars, Races 1 and 2: Both on the Weymouth Bay West course.
Women’s Match Racing: The match racing will always be on the Nothe course, with the exception of some of the fifth through eighth eliminations. It will generally follow one or two races of another fleet. Today it starts at 1330 after the Finn races
Practice racing for the 49er, Laser, and Laser Radial fleets.
What to Watch For:
Ben Ainslie has historically been a slow starter in the Olympics. In Athens, eight years ago, he started with a ninth and a DSQ, and the British press was apoplectic, especially about the DSQ, which was a little suspect. But he rebounded nicely and was winning the regatta after 8 races.
For the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider this is a big day. Our medal hopes depend heavily on Zach Railey and the Women’s Match Racing team of Anna Tunnicliffe, Molly Vandemoer, and Debbie Capozzi. A good start is important.
Mistakes. Look for upsets in the women’s match racing, or any alphabet scores in the fleet racing. While coming back from a bad first day isn’t impossible, it’s getting harder and harder as the level of the competition rises with each successive Olympic Regatta. Both Robert Scheidt and Mark Mendelblatt said the small Star fleet, just 16 boats, reduces the premium on getting a good start and that caution will be the name of the game on the line. The first race of the Olympics can cause a surge in adrenalin, however. Keeping it under control will be key.
Right now it’s beautiful, partly sunny, not too warm, plenty of breeze. It’s expected to turn for the worse. Hopefully that will hold off until after racing. We’ve got rain on the horizon for the foreseeable future, so one nice day would be, well, nice. But at least we have wind!
As I’ve said for a while. I’m putting the over/under on U.S. medalst at 2.5. Three or more would be something to shout about. Dean Brenner, the chairman of US Sailing’s Olympic Sailing Committee, says this team is “noticeable stronger than the team we brought to China in 2008.” However, that may not manifest itself in any more medals. We have a strong chance in three classes (Finn, Laser Radial, and Women’s Match Racing), and an outside chance in three others (Women’s 470, Star, 49er). If I had to get specific: Gold for Team Tunnicliffe. Bronze for Zach Railey. Fifth for Paige Railey. My wild card is the Women’s 470 team of Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan. The big breeze doesn’t bode well for U.S. Star representative Mark Mendelblatt, who said yesterday that the P-Star is a better heavy air boat than the Folli he has chosen. and the first week of the event looks windy.