Olympics Day 8 – Medals Behind You

The first of the medal race days could hardly have been worse for the sport. With the world’s eyes, ears and cameras trained on course ‘A’, the expectations were for two full-on match races, Ben Ainslie versus Zach Railey in the Finns and Ayton/Webb/Wilson in the Yngling versus their Dutch opponents Mulder/Bes/Witteveen.

But as the thermal breeze fought that of the gradient, the result was a windless hole planted directly over the course. Every now and then the breeze would pick up, rippling the surface as it built to around 5 knots, prompting race officer Peter Reggio, (who as PRO of the last America’s Cup has plenty of experience in such conditions), to attempt to get racing under way.

After three postponements, two in the closing seconds of the pre-start, the Finn medal race finally got under way, Ainslie and Railey locked in a private match race in which the British sailor had the American in a tactical headlock from the start.

To add to the lack of drama, the long slog upwind was painful to watch as the fleet struggled to stem the west going tide. If this race for the ultimate sporting award was supposed to present the pinnacle of sailing, the images suggested something else, yet worse was to come.

As the leading boat, that of Dane sailor Jonas Hoegh-Christensen rounded the weather mark he was swept downwind by the tide faster than the fickle breeze could have managed to propel him. As it did so his sail went limp as the apparent breeze dropped to close to zero. Another painful image to watch.

Yet worse was to come.

To win gold Ainslie had to beat Railey or have no more than four boats between them if the American was leading. Nothing else mattered and Ainslie locked onto his man. As the pair rounded the weather mark Ainslie was 9th and Railey 10th, both trailing the fleet by a country mile. Yet at this point, Ainslie was winning gold and Railey had silver. A more confusing spectacle for the millions of viewers and thousands of spectators was difficult to imagine.

Only when the breeze died altogether did the agony stop, at least for the time being, when the race was abandoned.

“Even if that race had finished it was not a great race and not good conditions. It’s not good for the sport when we don’t race on the first medal race,” said Ainslie once ashore. “It’s frustrating for everyone involved, I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of this venue.”

Railey, who has punched above his weight throughout this event, demonstrated his cool, calculated manner and the reason why he is deep in the medal match as he stepped ashore.

“Yesterday I match raced Guillaume Florent in order to give myself a points buffer and a lot of people asked why I did that. Today was the exact reason. I needed to get points behind me. Now the situation is reversed. I’m trying to get around the race course and Ben’s trying to send me back.”

The Ynglings, who were due to race after the Finns, came back to the dock empty-handed, a sleepless night unrewarded.

The result is that there will be three medal races tomorrow (Sunday), starting with the Yngling fleet which is scheduled to kick off at 1pm. But, a variety of forecasts now doing the rounds has cast doubt on precisely what the sailors may face. Earlier in the day the forecast for tomorrow suggested wind speeds in the mid twenties with rainfall on a biblical scale. By this evening, such forecasts had been scaled down, some even believed that the breeze might decay by the time racing started.

Yet while the world faced the medal course where it thought the big stories would be, the real action was behind as the Australian 470 men became the first sailing team at the 2008 Olympics to win a gold medal – with a day to spare.

Nathan Wilmot and Malcolm Page have sailed a superbly consistent series to take a gold with comparative ease. Yet unlike 2004, there was no mention of taking the day off and no mention of a hair cut for the medal ceremony. Participating in the medal race is obligatory.

“One more race, it’s a bit of a pain but we have to do it,” joked Wilmot. “We’ll have fun doing it, no pressure.”

“I think we doubled our points today,” said Page, “It was our worse day of the event!”

Winning the first medal for the Australian team, the first medal of the sailing event and beating the Poms to the podium, as one reporter put it, was surely something to celebrate.

“It doesn’t get any better does it?!” quipped Page.

Meanwhile for most of the Brit sailors, the distraction of the medal race day had taken the media spotlight off races that hadn’t gone well, among them Bassadone and Clark in the 470 women’s fleet who, although making it into the medal race on Monday, scored a 15th and a 5th today to finish their series in 9th, 49 points off the lead. By their own admission a bronze medal is only a faint hope.

The 470 men Rogers and Glanfield had a similarly tough day with an OCS then a second and a third and while not out of the medals, gold is no longer an option.

The 49ers have their medal race tomorrow but for the Brit pair Morrison and Rhodes, medals won’t be on the menu despite entering the final race in 9th.

The highs and lows of the Olympics have started, but not necessarily where they were expected.