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Gladwell's line: Tokyo2020 - first reflections on a yo-yo Olympic regatta

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 3 Aug 12:44 NZST 3 August 2021
Tokyo2020 - Day 3 - July, 27, - Enoshima, Japan. Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL) 49er © Richard Gladwell - Sail-World.com / nz

Greetings from Enoshima, Japan.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics are half over - the remaining five Olympic Medal races due to be contested over the next two days.

New Zealand sailors will be in three of those five remaining Medal races - assuming things don't come horribly unstuck in the remaining two Mens 470 qualifying races today.

Rightly or wrongly, the success of the Tokyo2020 Sailing Olympics and New Zealand sailors' performance will be defined by the Kiwi Olympic team's performance over the next couple of days.

The same judgement criteria will be applied to the performance of all countries who select on the basis of ability to win an Olympic Medal, and where a top 10 placing is the base criteria. Others, particularly the so-called developing nations are there just to take part - and share the Olympic experience, or "Olympism".

Inevitably sailing's performance will be compared by the mainstream media to other sports and their respective achievements.

The TV broadcast consists of some magnificent images both on and off the boats, but it is a different picture from what we see each day on the water.

The bottom line with this regatta is that a handful of sailors across all fleets have the ability to read the conditions and be able to use those to their advantage.

Australia's Mat Belcher and Will Ryan are the stand-out in this regard. They have two races to go before the Medal Race, and their worst performance is a fifth placing.

Across all fleets, there are top sailors with multiple double-digit places - some have scorecards with places in the 20's.

That's a function of the vagaries of the breeze and currents at Enoshima, coupled with light conditions that make the shifts and increases in pressure more difficult to spot.

Looking at the situation in AC75 terms, Enoshima is like seeing one AC75 wallowing in light winds off its foils, while 20 metres away, another has found the wind pressure and is blasting away at over 40kts.

As some sailors have commented, Enoshima is one place where it pays to be greedy- when you hit a spot of increased pressure or get onto a wind bend or more localised shift.

To some extent, it also pays to bang the corners and hope you get lucky. That strategy has worked for many sailors, but it is a bit of a stretch thinking that your luck will stay in for the whole series.

From this distance, one gets the impression that the post-mortems have already started in New Zealand - as they inevitably do when Rowing has a good medal haul. That conversation soon shifts to the "we've got to back winners" cliche when the Olympic results get translated into funding allocations.

There are a few points that need to be borne in mind when assessing the Kiwi, and other nation's performances at Enoshima.

Firstly, New Zealand was only represented in six events in Enoshima, yet we qualified in all ten.

On the Olympic Qualifications list, New Zealand is the most prevalent non-selector. In Rio, NZ was represented in seven events after electing not to send sailors in two women's events and one male event. In Tokyo, it has been three women's events and one male event.

Nowhere was that policy put into sharper focus than on Days 1 and 2 of the Olympic regatta, where the Laser, Laser Radial and Mens and Womens RS:X (windsurfing) contested. New Zealand had only one entry in those four fleets.

We have to send teams which are comprised of potential top ten competitors, but also with those who are there for development or to provide a benchmark for domestic competition on their return to New Zealand.

Anyone who has done any analysis of Olympic performance knows that generally, no one wins a Gold medal on their first attempt.

Russell Coutts is one exception, but even the most successful sailor of all time. Ben Ainslie missed the Gold medal in Atlanta in 1996.

Boardsailor, Tom Ashley (NZ) who won the Gold medal in Windsurfing in 2008 at Qingdao, had a very average Olympics in 2004 - placing 10th. He took those learnings into a dominant performance four years later. Fortunately, New Zealand had the good sense to send Peter Burling and Carl Evans to Qingdao in 2008, when they were still in their mid-teens and the youngest sailing team that had ever competed at the Olympics. They just missed the cut for the Medal Race, but Burling realised what had to be done after the learning experience, and the rest is history.

Comparing Sailing with Rowing, even though both are boat sports can be a little fraught, particularly when there is a situation such as we have had with Covid and the restrictions that it has placed on crews and competition.

Rowing has a very well structured European competition with the Rowing World Cup events making it possible for a New Zealand team to be sent to row in usually four regattas and then qualify through that circuit or through their World Championships. Sailings regatta circuits are much more scattered.

Rowing also has an excellent development path from school level. Those who follow the sport can remember seeing America's Cup and 2012 Olympic Rowing Gold winner, Joseph Sullivan winning three events at the NZ High Schools' Maardi Cup in just over 30 minutes and the Evers-Swindell sisters before him. Both, went on to win Olympic Gold medals about seven years later.

Rowing is also a sport that can be run by times and numbers - particularly when a body like Rowing NZ has an excellent performance database. The RNZ selectors will seat-race crews until they find the best combination and then start the serious training at their superb facility at Karapiro.

Plus, you don't get far in Rowing without having a big ticker and being able to row through the pain. That's a mental thing and something that can never be taught.

Unlike Rowing, Sailing is not a sport where crews are selected in an arranged marriage.

Sailing is one where you find a friend and start a campaign and see how things go.

The other big difference is that, unlike sailors, rowers don't pay for their boats. Rowing NZ would never be able to run the tough selection system they do if boat ownership was a prerequisite.

Sailing is more a concentration sport than Rowing - and it is maybe that factor that has seen so many yo-yo results in Enoshima - as the sailors struggle to think logically in the heat and read and process the winds and currents.

Of course, the significant difference between Rowing and Sailing is that the ones doing most of the concentrating are the cox (who is not making a physical effort in the boat), the stroke and the bow rower. The rest just "pull like dogs", as Irish Lightweight Rowing gold medalists, the Donovan brothers, were want to say.

So when glib comparisons are made between Rowing and Sailing over the next few months, be aware of some very key differences.

Inevitably there will be a review into Sailing, but it is only valid as a learning exercise. The next Olympics are just three years away and will be one where, thanks to the wisdom of World Sailing, half the Tokyo2020 events will change.

The simple point is that if there is to be new talent inducted into the New Zealand, or any other team for Paris2024, then the time to start was yesterday. This is not a normal Olympic cycle. We're already in Year 2. It is up to the sailors to make the first move, not Yachting NZ, or any other national authority for that matter.

One of the key factors that will emerge from a review will be the performance of team management and coaches. Enoshima has been a test of team management under pressure.

Thanks to Covid, lead-up events have been cancelled, and when teams get off to a bad start, the management and coaching staff need to have cool heads, settle the situation down, and refocus.

Australian Laser Gold Medalist, and current World Champion Mat Wearn, scored 17th and 28th places in the opening races here in Enoshima. But he and his coaches/management managed to turn his performance around, putting together a string of single-digit performances, to the point where he had the Gold medal as good as around his neck before the Medal race was sailed.

One of the stand-outs from this regatta is that you have to have genuine sailing talent to be successful.

Sailing is not a sport, unlike others, that can be heavily coached. Perfect technical execution is part of sailing, like all sports, but it still requires a good dollop of natural sailing talent, and the ability to think clearly under pressure.

In Sailing, the coach is part of the crew. They all work together differently.

A look around the boat park and fleet on the water here at Enoshima - reveals some interesting personalities and relationships.

Again, no one size suits all - free spirits and flair must be allowed to develop in their own way and not be boxed into the constraints of a rigid program whose primary focus is achieving the required performance numbers.

That is a challenge that the sports funders have to get their heads around - and the current approach, which has been built around accepted business principles, needs a tweak around talent development at Olympic level.

One of the imponderables of this event will be the effect of World Sailing's late banning of electronic wind recording devices and applications.

One, YotBot, is available off the shelf, and around 16 countries alone were using YotBot. Enoshima seems to be a race area where a system like Yotbot would have been useful to measure wind performance.

It is all very well to ban technology to try and stop a so-called "Arms Race". But when products are available off the shelf - what is the problem? The technology is a very small part of the campaign cost and arguably is one way for the developing countries to close up to the established players and their systems.

One of the stand-out aspects of this Olympic Regatta is the increasing number of developing countries participating, evidenced by many country designators that we have not seen previously. They are not often at the front of the fleet - but some have their moments - including American Samoa, which led the Men's 470 fleet on the first beat of one race and rounded the mark in third place before dropping back to mid-fleet.

There will be more to come on this regatta after it is all done and dusted. But in the meantime, enjoy the final two days that remain.

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