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Stephen Park's Olympic update

RYA Olympic Manager on Perth 2011, the three unselected Team GBR slots and equipment for Rio 2016

Friday December 2nd 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: Australia

The Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships for the Olympic classes kicks off tomorrow with two days of Women’s Match Racing.

The regatta is taking place in Fremantle and anyone old enough to remember the 1987 America’s Cup held there, it is likely to be a big wind and large waves affair. With the temperature forecast to soar to 36°C this weekend, there is the opportunity for the famous Fremantle Doctor sea breeze to blow strongly, but this week there has also been a significant gradient breeze. Typically the Doctor is up to around 15 knots by noon and has built further to 25 by the late afternoon, but due to the strong gradient this week it has been 1400 before the Doctor has fully developed.

With the first flights of the Women’s Match Racing this weekend, so on Monday they are joined out on the water by the RS Women, Finn, 470 Men and Laser Radials, which race throughout next week with their medal races taking place on Sunday, 10 December, before competition gets underway for the remaining classes the week after, with their medal races on Sunday, 18 December.

Conditions are expected to be ‘interesting’ for the Women’s Match Racing which is taking place on Fremantle’s Inner Harbour on the Swan River, on an Extreme Sailing Series-style race course around 200m in width. While the Inner Harbour is orientated so that the Fremantle Doctor blows straight down it, in order to get through all the flights, the Women’s Match Racing is scheduled to start each day at 1000 before the sea breeze has developed.

In addition to the ‘Harbour’ course, there are five more out in the open sea. Next week the RS:X Women are on the spectator-friendly Centre Course (which will also be used for the medal races) while the Radials will be on 'Parmelia', the 470 Men on ‘Success’ and the Finns on ‘Leighton’. The following week the RS:X Men are mostly on the Centre Course, the 49er fleets mostly on the Owen and Success courses, the Lasers on Parmelia, the 470 Women on Owen and Success, the RS:X Men on the Centre Course and the Stars on ‘Leighton’. With the exception of the Women’s Match Racing, competition is scheduled to get underway each day at around 1200-1230.

Perth 2011 is of course the World Championship for each of the Olympic sailing disciplines. However for many teams it is significantly more vital than that. Many national teams are using it as the culmination of their selection trials. However for sailors further down the ladder, also important will be to ‘country qualify’, as results in Perth 2011 form the basis for 75% of the nation entry quota for next year’s Olympiad.

Happily for Skandia Team GBR, being from the host nation of next year’s Games means that there is no requirement to country qualify and in any case hopefully most of the British sailors are high enough up the pecking order in their respective classes for this not to have been an issue.

So over and above the weight of it being a World Championship, with all but three of their ten Olympic crews decided (ie all except the Laser Radial, 470 Men and 49er), what relevance is Perth 2011 for Skandia Team GBR?

“It is one of the key events that we have to deliver results against for the UK Sport World Class program,” the RYA’s Olympic Manager Stephen Park responds. “In terms of the Olympics of course it is not important for us, because we don’t have country qualification and we have seven out of the ten events [already selected]. For the three events we haven’t selected for, as you know we are looking at a number of different events, but certainly a good performance at the World Championship is unlikely to do your cause for Olympic selection any harm if you are sailing in one of those remaining three events.”

For those already qualified it is largely about bragging rights and psychological one-up-manship. “Coming out of the World Championship leading into the Olympic year as a World Champion will give you good confidence leading into the Olympic year.”

The three remaining

Among those not yet selected, the dust-up in the 470 Men will be between two time silver medallist Nick Rogers, now sailing with Chris Grube (who got the pre-Olympics berth), the 2006 and 2008 World Champions Nic Asher and Elliot Willis and the young hotshots Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell, who have generally been the top performers in this Olympic cycle ever since their surprise silver at the 2009 Worlds, just days after forming their team.

In the 49ers Beijing representatives Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes have a nose ahead having been picked to go to the pre-Olympics and now with the added benefit of having Paul Brotherton as their coach. The British 49er squad has had a significant culling since Skandia Sail for Gold, but Morrison and Rhodes will still face stiff competition from in particular John Pink and Rick Peacock.

In the Laser Radials Charlotte Dobson’s fourth place at Skandia Sail for Gold was enough to secure her the berth at the pre-Olympics, where she ended up ninth. Her competition is Alison Young, who finished seventh at Sail for Gold and who was second at the Delta Lloyd Regatta this year.

Previously Stephen Park has told us that selection in these three classes could be left as late as Easter next year, however he now says that it could go even longer. “If we think there is good competition and no one has put themselves into an outstanding position, then you continue. One of the options of course is to look at what their performance might be like in Weymouth if you thought there was a concern about that and the next time to do that would be the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta [over 4-9 June].”

But obviously he and the selectors are hoping that a stand-out emerges crew in each of the three unconfirmed classes at Perth 2011, in which case selection may happen sooner. “If one wins the World Championships, then there is not much more they could do...”

Park reckons it is unlikely that the selection would culminate in a UK trials for any of the three classes.

The competition

Meanwhile Perth 2011 will be an opportunity to see which sailors and teams are on top of their game. As always the strongest teams seem to be New Zealand, France, Spain, Holland and Australia and the hosts are expected to put on a fine display for the home crowd. As Park puts it: “The Australians are traditionally good in strong wind venues and this is an Australian home, strong wind venue. They have got people in the Laser, 49er,and 470 who are recognised throughout the world as being the strong wind experts, so you would have to say they are in a pretty good position.” In particular they have reigning Laser World Champion Tom Slingsby, 2009 49er World Champions Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen and the reigning 470 Men World Champions in Beijing gold medallist Malcolm Page and Mat Belcher.

However Park points out that in recent Olympic Games, the Australian favourites under-performed, with both Slingsby and Outteridge out of the medals in Beijing for example (although Aussies were the gold medallists in both 470 classes).

Then there are other nations which traditionally feature well in some classes, Brazil being a prime example with Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada in the Star, while Poland are strong in the RS:X classes and the Star, with Athens Finn bronze medallist Mateusz Kusnierewicz and Dominik Zycki, and Croatia are typically good in all the singlehanded classes with especially Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic in the Finn.

Park observes that the number of potential medal winners in every class has increased over the last cycle. “If you like the difference between first and 10th is a smaller range of abilities than it was four or five years ago. So therefore I think it becomes more difficult to predict who the winners are going to be.”

Equipment for Rio 2016

Equipment trials for the next Women’s skiff, the catamaran and the sailboard v kiteboard contest are due to take place at an evaluation trial in Santander, Spain next year over 9-19 April. Park believes that the aim is to get a proposal ready in time for the next ISAF Mid-Year Meeting on 3-6 May 2012 in Stresa, Italy. At present the actual equipment for Rio 2016 isn’t due to be confirmed until the ISAF Conference in November 2012 but allegedly there is move to give the new equipment the nod at May’s meeting.

Park wryly points out that while the strap line for Perth 2011 is ‘the dream begins in Perth’ for many more sailors the dream will be ending in Perth if they are not selected to go to the Games. So what do they do in the intervening period if they are a Women’s Match Racer or a Star sailor, both classes due to be scrapped for the next Olympic cycle? This has obviously been the case in past Olympic cycles, but still as Park points out “if they are not going to decide until November 2012, then there is a reasonable period of time that you don’t know what the equipment is which makes it a bit of a challenge for those sailors.”

However all may not be lost for Star sailors, for while the ancient Olympic Men’s keelboat has been given the flick from the 10 sailing events at Rio 2016, the Brazilian Olympic Committee, in their capacity as host nation, is supposed to be in the process of appealing to the International Olympic Committee to see if they can have the Star re-instated as an 11th sailing event. They of course have a strong traditional in the class with Torben Grael the proud owner of two golds and two bronze Star medals from 1988-2004, with Robert Schiedt and Bruno Prada following on with a silver in Beijing.

Whether this comes to pass remains to be seen and of course it wouldn’t be the first time that the Star has lost its position as an Olympic discipline, only to be reinstated. If this does come to pass then it is likely it would still have to be approved by ISAF but seeing as the Executive Committee during the 2010 Mid-Year Meeting in St Petersburg seemed willing to let the 49er go in favour of reinstating the Star, one imagines this would be a formality.

Interestingly while there was much furore recently over the Tornado not meeting the published specification for the proposed ‘Two Person Mixed Gender Multihull’ – with a one piece mast and too long to fit into a 20ft container – Park, himself an ex-Tornado sailor, doesn’t believe it is necessarily the end of the road for the former Olympic catamaran.

“I realise it is difficult for the Tornado to meet the preferred specification, but I think it is fair to say that it is difficult for the majority of catamarans to meet that specification and it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t turn up with a boat they want to be considered and that the evaluation committee won’t look at the other aspects of it and say ‘maybe it is a bit big, maybe it does have a one piece mast, maybe it is difficult to fit into a 20ft container, but actually the speed, the performance, the universality and all those good points of it, outweigh the specification'. That may well be the case and we have seen that in the past as well.”

Park points out that given Rio is expected to be a light wind venue, and with the Star possibly out and given the requirement handed down by the IOC that sailing should be more ‘TV friendly’, they should be looking for the biggest, most powerful exciting catamaran available. The proposed weight range of 120-140kg for the mixed crew is also likely to mean that the male half of the crew has to be 470 helm-sized. “There is a high risk, that if we are not careful all the equipment, with the exception of the heavyweight men (the Finn sailors) will almost exclusively be for lightweight sailors.”

One of the most interesting proposals, shown at the Mid-Year Meeting in St Petersburg was for a 20ft high performance catamaran, designed by America’s Cup Race Management's team. That gets the Park vote: “Now that would be exciting, it would be taking the sport forwards and would have the potential to be incredibly powerful, particularly in a light wind regatta and perhaps might appeal to some of the Star sailor-type people who might well be involved in the America’s Cup, who might be in the 90-100kg bracket if the boat is big and powerful enough.”

Obviously this wouldn’t be especially cheap, even if it was a manufacturer’s one design, but what if it were supplied equipment – the Oracle 20, for example?

While it is hard to think of an existing boat that exactly fits ISAF’s specification for the Olympic catamaran, this is not the case for the Women’s High Performance Skiff for which there are many contenders, from the most obvious being the 29erXX, to the newer examples such as RS900, the Hartley Rebel and Ovington’s sexy new Aura.

“To be honest, most people think that the 29erXX is not the boat, but it is the boat that has the most numbers and it is easier for it to happen, because you can convert 29ers and there is an existing manufacturer’s structure, etc,” says Park. “But again it has a very light all-up sailing weight and it is an old design at the end of the day, whereas you could take one of the newer designs, which are more high performance, more exciting and challenging for the girls to sail. And I daresay there will be one or two that we haven’t seen. When the 49er was brought out in Garda, not many people had seen that. Very few had sailed it outside of Australia and in fact when they went to Garda there were very few who could sail it! Then a few years later, they are putting a bigger mast and more power on it...”

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