Micky Beckett writes.....
"This Olympics will be riveting, for a myriad of reasons there has never been one quite like it. The event will consist of a ten-race series plus medal race spread over up to eight days, with just one discard. Racing will take place in Enoshima, a small peninsula in the middle of the South-facing Sagami bay. Even in summer the bay can produce a lethal swell as the seabed shelves from nearly a kilometre deep up to the shallow depths near the coast. Not many events contain a provision in the sailing instructions for a tsunami, let alone an Olympics. The sailors can expect an uncomfortably high humidity on top of a sweaty 35 degrees. During the dates of the Olympics the wind has historically always been onshore with a reasonable groundswell underneath, with anything from a fickle 4kt to a booming 25kt. Throw in a few random currents that don’t correlate with the tides in the slightest, the venue has ample supply of transparent curveballs.
Taking a step back from the event itself, allow me to paint a picture of the ILCA 7 fleet as it currently stands, so you know to expect. The fleet is regularly described by the sailors who it comprises of as ‘stacked’ - allow me to explain.
Imagine, you learned to sail as a child, around the same time most kids learn to ride a bike. You loved sailing and grew up racing your mates, travelling around your country and learning all things boats. Even by the time you’re 20 you don’t appear to have grown up so you keep on sailing your Laser. You start to funnel all your time, energy and money that you definitely don’t have, not to mention occasional tears, into trying to be the best in the World. At this point you find yourself scraping into gold fleet. But you persevere because underneath all the pain and ‘the struggle’ you love it. You get fit, you get good and you get smart. You’re on a start line at the Worlds, you’re not a kid anymore, you’ve been here before. Good start, hiking hard and focussing like a man possessed, you nail every shift. There can’t be another human on earth capable of matching your brilliance, nobody could be willing to try as hard as you, surely no-one can match your aptitude for pain? You get to the windward mark 12th and finish 27th overall.
The demise of the Finn as an Olympic class has only contributed to the irritatingly large number of World-class Laser sailors. With few exceptions, most Finn sailors did at least one Olympic cycle in a Laser before becoming impatient with dieting and finishing in silver fleet. From 2016 onwards it didn’t make any sense to make this transition as there wouldn’t have been time to get to grips with the Finn class’ final Olympic appearance in 2020, so many sailors that would have transitioned have remained in the Laser. Andy Maloney (NZL) and Nicolas Heiner (NED) were the last to make this transition in early 2016 after they both failed win their country’s Olympic trials.
So not only is the fleet stacked, but the pandemic and the delay of the Olympics mean that myself and all the other armchair pundits are really in the dark. Typically in the six months running up to the Olympics there are a clamour of opportunities for sailors to show and hone their form, it’s been a monstrous 15 months since the last World Championships.
It is interesting to look at the unique circumstances of the Olympics, and to do this it is best, as always, to follow the money. Almost all of the athletes at the Olympics, in all sports, are supported and paid for by a national governing body (NGB). NGBs are funded by a blend of commercial and state support, in sports as unfathomable as sailing the latter does the lion’s share of the work. NGBs have enormous financial incentive to be able to go back home and say “Look Mr Sports Minister! We brought shiny medals to inspire the people! A pay rise for the next four years hard work?”
For the sailors this will manifest itself in everyone suddenly behaving very strangely. Laser sailing is a solitary affair, in the grand scheme of things nobody pays much attention, even at a Worlds. Now, it’s the Olympics, so not only are people outside the minority who actually understand the game paying attention, but NGBs and all their staff will be tripping over one-another to help their sailors, where for the previous 3.9 years most will have been haggling to get so much as a spare cap.
The pressure is inescapable. No matter if you have already won many medals or if you’re an Olympic rookie, everyone you have ever known will be bowled over by the achievement of winning an Olympic medal, to say nothing of the shot in the arm you could provide to your governing body (which coincidentally consists of your coach, doctor, boss and most of the people that will be at your wedding).
Enough preamble, I would like to present the nine people who I think could genuinely win a medal. Yep, nine.
Jean Baptiste Bernaz (FRA)
‘JB’ to those that know him, will be competing in his fourth Olympics – which he promises me will be his last. He has largely been uncontested for the French Olympic spot and has won more medals than I can be bothered to count at World, European & World cup events over the last decade. JB finished 5th at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Phillip Buhl (GER)
Phillip is the current World Champion, who also won the European continental qualifier in April. He is a master at managing his form, with few exceptions the tougher the event the better he will sail.
Elliot Hanson (GBR)
Elliot is the current European champion. Probably his most notable achievement was how he crushed the 2018 Japan World Cup – winning by an unnecessary 50 points. If he brings his best form to Tokyo then he will be starting impeccably and will consistently round the first mark near the front.
Tonci Stipanovic (CRO)
Tonci won the Europeans four times between 2010 and 2014. The pinnacle of his achievements was entering the medal race at the Rio Olympics with a commanding 10 point lead in the event, which Tom Burton (AUS) somehow managed to overturn leaving Tonci with a silver medal. Tonci also won a bronze medal at the most recent World Championships in 2020.
Pavlos Kontides (CYP)
Pavlos is a master unto his own. A double World champion and Olympic medallist, when he’s on form he is simply a force of nature. Every competitor will know that should Pavlos arrive in his finest form, it would take a monumental effort to stop him.
Jesper Stalheim (SWE)
Jesper Stalheim’s won the 2019 ‘test event’, which was held at the same time of year, in the same place and with the same people as the upcoming Olympics so was the perfect dress rehearsal, it would be naïve to overlook his victory there.
Matthew Wearn (AUS)
Moving into the southern hemisphere, Matt will be attending his very first Olympics. This doesn’t mean he lacks the pedigree in the slightest, he’s won four medals at the last four Worlds, every time just sniffing distance away from becoming a World Champion. To represent Australia in Tokyo he had to beat the reigning Olympic & 2019 World champion Tom Burton, a gargantuan task.
Sam Meech (NZL)
Sam won a bronze medal in Rio 2016, since then he’s never been far from the front. Probably the most under-rated sailor, he could round a windward mark narrowly in the lead, being hotly pursued by the next fastest sailor in the fleet, and just open out a 100m gap like it was a club race.
Robert Scheidt (BRA)
Robert has won twice as many World Championships as the rest of the competitors in the fleet put together. This will be his seventh Olympics, he will be chasing a sixth Olympic medal, his experience is unparalleled. Anyone who thinks he might be over the hill only has to see the intensity in his eyes, to know he’s still got it."
Many thanks to Southeast Sailboats sponsored sailor Micky Beckett for this great article.
Team GB Olympic representative Elliot Hanson has chosen Southeast Sailboats to provide custom versions of our unique ‘double puller’ outhaul system; signature 8:1 downhaul system; kicker/vang system, as well as our ProMAX-99 traveller for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Southeast Sailboats wishes Elliot all the best for Tokyo 2020!
Look out for Olympic coach Jon Emmett's article on the Women's Singlehander coming soon!