Would you risk an Olympic medal for a shot at immortality?
With just a few hundred meters left in the Finn class medal race Pieter-Jan Postma of the Netherlands was comfortably in position for the bronze medal. But dangling just a boatlength ahead was the silver, possibly the gold. All he had to do was get inside of Daniel Slater of New Zealand for the final mark rounding before a short reach—a parade in almost any condition—to the finish.
At risk was the bronze medal he had in his grasp. As close as he was to the gold medal, the leather medal, fourth place, was equally as close. Drop one spot and Postma would find himself watching the medal ceremonies instead of participating in them.
Would you risk it all for a shot at the top prize? For a chance to say you were the one who prevented Ben Ainslie from winning his fourth gold medal? Or would you hold back and protect the one tangible thing that can—to sailor and non-sailor alike—validate years and years of hard work and six days of very solid sailing?
For much of the medal race Postma had fought simply to get into the position to secure his bronze. He’d been as deep as sixth before grinding back to third around the final windward mark. Then, on the final run, while in bronze medal position, he looked back and saw Ben Ainslie and Jonas Christensen in ninth and 10th, respectively, and knew that second could mean gold.
While Slater wasn’t in contention for a medal, and had no desire to play a pivotal role in the outcome of the race, he had a battle of his own to fight. He started the race among a group of four sailors (Rafael Trujillo Villar of Spain, Daniel Birgmark of Sweden, and Nirkko Tapio of Finland) all within four points of each other. Holding second would mean a seventh place finish for Slater. Not a medal, to be sure, but better than eighth, ninth, or 10th.
“I said to PJ,” said Slater, “when we came along the run, because I protected the starboard rights on him and stayed on the inside. I said to him, ‘Don’t have a go up at the mark, because I’ll take you up.’ I said, ‘Don’t do it; you’ve got a medal.’ That’s all I said to him. He was just red in the face and I think it was going through his head what he was going to do and he didn’t quite execute it. I didn’t luff him at all, I went up, but I didn’t do a hard luff or anything and the boom hit the back of the camera mount and the whole world saw it. It was pretty blatant.”
In any other race, this sort of contact might’ve been little more than a love tap between close friends, worth a beer and a laugh later. But with the international jury scrutinizing every aspect of the medal race, it was an instant penalty for Postma, who dropped from almost second, to fifth, and, consequently, from almost gold, to fourth.
Slater was determined not to be a deciding factor in the medal race. However, there’s an honor code on the water that says that by not trying you are also impacting the race. So he was determined to sail the race as he normally would. But when Postma’s boom smacked the back of his boat, no one felt worse about it that Slater. Well, perhaps, except Postma.
“I’m sorry for him,” said Slater, “because he’s a very, very good friend. And I really am sorry for him.”