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British Olympic sailing boss Mark Robinson reveals his big Tokyo fear

Written by 2nd July 2021 Featured-post, Tokyo 2020

First published on Yachts and Yachting


Back in 2017, when Mark Robinson took over as the RYA’s Olympic Performance Manager, he said the target for Tokyo 2020 was “four to seven medals”.

Given the postponement of the Games and the subsequent pandemic, what would a successful Olympics look like for the British team now?

“First and foremost, the aim is for no one to catch Covid – that would really ruin their day,” the 46-year-old straight-talking Aussie replies. “Apart from the health side of it, if one of the sailors does test positive, they’re probably out of their event for at least two days, maybe 10, so that’s game over.

“Our UK Government target is just ‘medals’ – it doesn’t matter about the colour. For us as the British Sailing Team, it’s important to still be the top nation, which generally speaking means winning two golds. Going back to the Olympic Test Event in 2019, we won the most amount of medals, but we didn’t have any golds. So there’s a bit of a push for that.”

The British sailors and shore team will fly out to Japan over the first fortnight of July and will be allowed on the water from 14 July.

The regatta runs from 25 July to 4 August, comprising race days and rest days for each class, at Enoshima Yacht Harbour in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture, around 40 miles south-east of Tokyo.

The British sailing team hopefuls first flew out there just after the Rio Games five years ago, to recce the venue, and they have trained and raced there many times since. One thing they’ve all been preparing for is big ocean swells.

“Next stop is the US,” says Robinson. “It is a big horseshoe bay, open to the ocean. It’s generally onshore in the Games period, mid-range, about 9-15 knots. You can occasionally get a northerly and if a typhoon goes past 200 miles away, it can get fluky.

“But yes we’ll get some big ocean swells and that’s why a lot of the countries have been training in places like the Canary Islands and Vilamoura in Portugal.”

When the postponement was announced in March 2020, the goal had to be simply to make the most of the extra year. How have the British sailors fared?

Robinson says: “Obviously travel restrictions due to Covid and Brexit haven’t helped, but the fact that in most classes we’ve got deep squads has allowed us to push forward. Like the America’s Cup, the one thing you can’t buy is time, so [the postponement] at least allowed some of the sailors to pursue things that they had put aside, be that equipment or technique.

“In general we only lost the five or six weeks of lockdown one, in terms of not being on the water. The rest of the time we’ve been on the water, whether in the UK or abroad. The Antipodeans, for example, haven’t left their country until two months ago, so they’re stuck training with whoever they’ve got there.”

As international regattas have started up again, the British sailors have been out racing where they can.

Robinson says: “Typically going into a Games you have so much competition leading up to it and instead now we have a bit of uncertainty as to where everyone stands in the pecking order, because we’ve had so little racing.”

He acknowledges some of the less-than-stellar results might have surprised the public, but he himself sounds far from concerned: “It depends what you’re doing. In some cases, those results were at the tail end of long trips overseas when the sailors were trying to test stuff, either equipment or technique, in the heat of battle.

“Giles, for example, has just come back from the America’s Cup, so he’s still got plenty of headroom [Rio gold medallist Scott was ninth in the recent Finn Gold Cup].”

Giles Scott

Tokyo was still in a State of Emergency in early June and British Olympic Association chair Hugh Robertson has said TeamGB is “doing everything possible to minimise any risk to the people of Japan”.

The British Sailing Team sent out nine 40ft containers, containing boats and kit, to Enoshima several months ago and Robinson has little doubt that the Games will go ahead.

“The Japanese government will protect the Games period at all costs,” he says. “It’s up to the Japanese cabinet to decide when people enter the country and how, but sailing is very much an outlier.

“We’ve all been pushing the message that sailing is probably the least risky sport. We’re outdoors and we’re a small group, with about 1,000 people on site in any given day, compared to 11,500 people in the main athletes’ village.”

TeamGB sailors will stay in the same venue they’ve used over the last four years, with their own kitchen and as ‘normal’ living conditions inside as can be.

Shoreside there will be less spectators, if any, but Robinson says that will only affect the medal races, which is the only course close to land. The other courses are out in the bay.

He says: “The biggest thing for the sailors is that quite a lot of their families wanted to go out. We were going to have around 50 family and friends [for the 14 sailors].”

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