Succeeding at Olympic level is a combination of preparation and execution. It’s a matter of analysing previous scenarios and working out how to do it better next time. But what do you do to prepare for a Covid Games?
No one knew the answer to that. The Tokyo 2020 sailing competition was a grand experiment in which teams and individual sailors had made best use of the limited opportunities of the previous 18 months of global pandemic and lockdown.
We now know that the British Sailing Team found a better answer to all the uncertainties of modern times than any other nation. Three golds, a silver and a bronze was a good leg ahead of the next most successful sailing nations – Australia (two golds) and the Netherlands (one gold and two bronze).
Mark Robinson’s sailing team and shore team were thrown constant curveballs during the long build-up, not least for Alex Wardall, the RYA’s Olympic logistics mastermind. “It’s been very much a moving landscape all the way up to the Games,” she says. “It’s a challenging role at the best of times because of the nature of the beast, and the fact that sailing is a such a specific sport. It’s a logistics heavy sport, it’s totally reliant on the sports venue, and we’re a big team in those 10 classes so it’s a bit like having 10 sports sometimes. Over the last year we had to let go of the advanced detail pre-planning. We’ve had to be a lot more reactive.”
Often it can seem a disadvantage that the sailing event is so far removed from the rest of the Games, but on this occasion with all the heavy Covid restrictions it was a benefit to be based an hour from the hubbub of Tokyo in the seaside resort of Enoshima. The tranquillity of the Team GB base in Hayama worked really well for the sailors and coaches, just a pleasant seven-minute RIB ride across Sagami Bay to avoid getting stuck in any traffic jams. The journey by bus can vary from 20 minutes to an hour and a half, so the RIB was the way to go, provided weather and waves didn’t get in the way of the commute.
Other than the Japanese training on home waters, no overseas sailors had been able to sail at Enoshima since the Test Event and World Cup regattas of summer 2019. There were two vital weeks of sailing time in the lead-up to the start of competition. It was light winds, sunny, with Mount Fuji in full view in the far distance. Idyllic. Of course the wind changed when competition time arrived. The Brits – and everyone else – would have to live on their wits and what limited experience they’d had previously of Enoshima.
The opening of the Games started in the best possible way, with Hannah Mills nominated to be flag bearer for Great Britain alongside Rio gold-medal-winning rower Moe Sbihi at the Opening Ceremony. “Carrying the flag for Team GB at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games is not a sentence I ever thought I’d say,” said Hannah, who was given the news by Mark England, chef de mission of Team GB. “When Mark told me I had been chosen, it was completely overwhelming and when I had a moment to think about what it meant I got pretty emotional. It is the greatest honour in my career and I hope more than ever before, this Games can lift our country and deliver some incredible sporting moments to inspire the nation.”
It would be a while before Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre would be able to work their magic on the waves, as the two 470 fleets were last to get racing. The first to line up on the start were the RS:X Men’s and Women’s windsurfers, and GBR’s Emma Wilson was fast out of the blocks on day one. She was even better on day two, winning a race and scoring a four and a two in the others. The next day – Big Wave Wednesday – brought some of the most exciting sailing conditions of the competition. The 22-year-old grinned her way to two race wins and she crossed the line in first in the last race of the session, only to discover she had been U-flag disqualified for crossing the start line too soon. It was almost, but not quite, a perfect hat trick of wins on Wednesday. No matter, Emma showed an incredible ability to shrug off the negative, focus on the positive.
She went into the medal race guaranteed a medal and with a strong shot at gold. In the end things didn’t go her way in the light-wind race, but no regrets for the ever-smiling Emma. “Of course you want to win a gold medal but I’ve many more years to come and I hope to be back. I just want to enjoy this moment, not many people get a medal at the Olympics and I need to be so grateful.” Grateful for not being fourth, a finishing position that has haunted her in recent years. “I’m so sick of coming fourth, it doesn’t get much worse than that. I didn’t feel too much pressure and I just tried to keep smiling.” The youngest member of the British sailing team had set the tone for the regatta. “I didn’t believe I’d be the first to get a medal but it’s cool and hopefully other people will get one too.” At the team celebration at the end of the regatta, Giles Scott told everyone that Emma’s success had given him a much needed boost of inspiration before his own medal race.
A lack of wind meant the skiff fleet had to wait a day for their medal race finales. Now there would be four back-to-back medal races in sunny, light to medium conditions. To come away with gold from their medal race, Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell would have to put a boat between themselves and sailing’s superstars, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke from New Zealand. That was a tall order. The reigning Olympic Champions have won six 49er world titles and twice won the America’s Cup. They were legends before they were 30. Burling and Tuke have been all but invincible in the Olympic skiff and it would take immense nerve and belief to be able to beat the hot favourites for the gold.
The Brits did hold their nerve, getting ahead of their Kiwi rivals at the top of the first windward leg, but the problem was the German team of Erik Heil and Thomas Ploessel. They were fighting the Brits all the way.
Neck and neck the whole race, the Germans had the lead on the final run. It was nip and tuck to the line. Inch by inch, it was on a knife edge. The British were closer to the line but sailing down in less breeze, while on the opposite gybe from the far side of the course were the Germans breezing along in their own personal gust. By the narrowest of margins, less than 2 seconds, less than 2 metres, the Brits crossed in front. The Germans were second, Kiwis third. Job done. Dylan and Stu went crazy, huge elation, massive grins all round. Dylan and Stu became Britain’s first ever 49er Olympic Champions, Burling and Tuke reluctantly settled for silver and the Germans took bronze.
“Pete and Blair are maybe the best team in the world, it has been great to race them and win here,” said Stu, who adds to his 470 silver medal won with Luke Patience at London 2012.” Fletcher looked like he had loved every moment of the Games, despite all the pressure. “I hope everyone back home enjoyed watching that. All the way round the course I was telling the boat, come on girl, you can do it.” The boat is called Kate, by the way, named after the Duchess of Cambridge.
Defending champion Giles Scott had assured himself of a medal going into the final race and just had to stay within four boats of his nearest rival, Zsombor Berecz from Hungary, to secure the gold. It should have been straightforward, provided he stayed out of trouble, didn’t do anything silly like the cross the start line too soon…
As the start gun fired for the Finn medal race, the individual recall flag went up. “Is it me?” Giles wondered. “I went back to restart because I thought I might be over the line too early and I wasn’t sure. It was the one thing I told myself I couldn’t afford to do, but somehow that’s what I end up doing. But I think that’s what the occasion that does to you.” Better safe than sorry, he went back around to start again, in doing so dropping to the back of the fleet and giving himself a mountain to climb. It would only be much later, even after the medal ceremony, that Giles would discover he had been behind the line all along.
From that point on it was a fight to get back in contention for gold. He pulled back some boats. Then they got ahead. His rival moved to the front.
On the final downwind leg Berecz was leading, Giles was seventh. He need to finish in the top five to keep his dream of being double Olympic champion alive. As Berecz crossed the finish line and won the medal race, he was in gold medal position.
Giles wasn’t done yet. Around the final mark and in the short run in to the finishing line he passed three boats. Three. He crossed the line in fourth securing the gold and with it the title of two-time gold medallist. For more than 20 years, ever since Iain Percy’s victory at Sydney 2000, thanks to the efforts of Ben Ainslie and Giles Scott, the Finn has yielded gold medal after gold medal for Great Britain. Many of those victories have been heart-in-mouth moments, Ben’s unlikeliest of comebacks on home waters in 2012, and now Giles’s last-gasp triumph in Tokyo.
“The emotions of today couldn’t be more different from Rio five years ago,” said Giles, who rarely puts his emotions on display. “In Rio I could have a nice meal the night before and just enjoy sailing around the course. Today was the polar opposite. I think I’ve aged a bit after that race. But I couldn’t be happier to have come through with the gold.”
John Gimson and Anna Burnet knew they had a medal already in the bag as they started the Nacra 17 medal race in second overall, but to get the gold they would need to put a lot of boats between their Italian training partners, Tita and Banti. A slow start made things difficult for John and Anna, but they moved ahead of the Italians. Now it was just a case of moving ahead of some more of the fleet.
Unfortunately the Italians stuck closely to the Brits and finished just behind them. Even so, it was a wonderful silver lining for John Gimson who had been trying for 20 years just to make it to the Olympics. Back up by experienced coaches and great friends Adam May and Iain Percy, John and Anna had won their hard-earned medal.
Anna paid tribute to her long-suffering helmsman who has invested his life and soul in the pursuit of Olympic nirvana. “No one deserves this more than John, he’s been working so hard for this for so many years.” John said: “So many times I’ve thought about giving up, it’s been a long road, but today it all feels worth it.”
Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre went into the medal race with a 14-point advantage over their closest rivals, the French team, Camille Lecointre and Aloise Retornaz. The Brits just needed to stay out of trouble and stay in touch with the French. Down the final run before the last turning mark to the finish, GBR was in second place. But it was tight at the mark and Brits took a wide berth at the mark, not wanting to do anything silly or risky and put the gold at risk.
Hannah and Eilidh dropped from second to fifth, just behind the Polish who had just passed them at the mark, and just ahead of the French. The gold was assured, while the last-mark reshuffle moved the silver from France to Poland. France protested the British, alleging team racing tactics with the Polish. Relief and elation at winning the gold turned to horror and fear that the medal might be snatched away from them in the most controversial of circumstances. The girls never got their moment being raised aloft by their team mates in their victorious 470. “It was good that Hannah kept it together,” said Eilidh, “because I basically fell apart and I think I was in a shock, to be honest.” A protest hearing was held, the French protest was dismissed, and the gold was confirmed for Great Britain. No hard feelings either, said Eilidh. “We had a moment with these girls and hugged it out. They’re such fantastic competitors. We’ve had so many times tussles with them. So to stand on the podium with them, that is a huge privilege for us.”
After growing up with a gold medal hanging on the wall in the family home, Eilidh has matched her dad’s achievement, the gold medal that Mike McIntyre won in the Star keelboat back in 1988, six years before his daughter was born.
“It’s been a hard regatta all week, and it took a while before I felt I could start celebrating the win,” said Hannah. “We were just so focused on executing our best race in what was probably my last time in a 470,” add Hannah, who retires from Olympic competition as the most successful female sailor ever, with two golds and a silver medal.
A whole team effort
Every member of the team contributed to the spirit of the British effort. Charlotte Dobson and Saskia Tidey had excelled in the strong winds, wearing the yellow bibs in the early days of the 49erFX competition, and were in with a shout of the podium on the final day, ending up sixth. A month after the Games, Charlotte and Dylan finally get married, the big day having been put on ice for year after the 12-month postponement of the Games. Ali Young finished her third Olympic Games in 10th place in the Laser Radial, Elliot Hanson was disappointed with his 12th in the hugely tough Laser fleet but will have learned loads from his first experience of the Games. Tom Squires was still in with a realistic shout of a medal in a jaw-droppingly zany RS:X Men’s medal race and ended up seventh, so close on points to the podium. Luke Patience and Chris ‘Twiggy’ Grube, were fifth in Tokyo, matching their fifth from Rio, but remained relentlessly cheerful and upbeat throughout their regatta. It was a whole team effort.
Great Britain not only survived the great experiment of Tokyo 2020, it had come through with flying colours. Giles Scott summed it up when he spoke to reporters after coming ashore from that amazing Finn medal race: “British sailing is in a good place.”