London Olympics 2012 - When seconds count

Fredrik Loof and Max Salminen (SWE)

At the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition, however one looked at it, for the first 28 minutes the defending Olympic champions of the Star class were achieving their aim. With Freddie Loof and Max Salminem disputing the lead of the medal race with Hamish Pepper and Jim Turner of New Zealand, the sixth place in which the British pair rounded the last mark was good enough for gold.


On the final leg, the fleet - from fourth to eighth - spread across the course and as the boats narrowed their path to the finishing line, there were several overlaps and port tack boats giving way to starboard tackers. Four of those crossed the line overlapped within two seconds and as (bad) luck would have it, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson had dropped two places and their gold was devalued to silver.

The Nothe course, where the medal race was held, has been under criticism from the sailors at these Games, and many others in the past have condemned the area a 'too tricky,' and not without cause. The wind shifts close inshore are fickle and capricious and these could have been the undoing of the British pair. 'It can be cruel, it feels that way at the moment,' said Percy on coming ashore. He added; 'That's the problem when you end up racing in ridiculous conditions, but we'll have to take it on the chin.'

There is considerable irony in the Star final placing. Four years ago, in Qingdao, Loof went into the medal race with 33 points, two clear of Percy and Simpson; Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada of Brazil had 47 points. In the medal race, a third for the Brazilians gave them 53 points and the silver medal; a fifth for the Brits gave them the gold medal with 45 points; while Loof who was last added 20 to his score and slumped to the bronze medal. This time it needed the first place to stake the Swedish skipper's claim to gold.

Percy and Simpson - close but a silver cigar - 2012 London Olympics - Weymouth Day 7

The Nothe course may work for the spectators - in the words of the Field-of-Play manager, Rod Carr: 'We hardly imagined that 4,500 people would pay (£55.00) to sit on the grass and cheer.' Not only was this crowd in the Nothe gardens, but on either side, the crowds occupied the slopes and the rocks - doubling the size of the spectator numbers. And they cheered their favourites loudly - it was a first for Olympic sailing.

The locals had another favourite to cheer when the Stars gave way to the Finns. Ben Ainslie is an acknowledged crowd favourite and this highly-partisan crowd was there to cheer him to success. All week, throughout the ten races, Ben had trailed Jonas Hogh-Christensen of Denmark and was just two points adrift when they started the medal race. Ben had not only to beat the Dane, but if Pieter-Jan Postma of Holland won the race, Ainslie had to be seventh or better - he had to have eyes for everything.

August 5, 2012 - Weymouth, England - Ben Ainslie sails away after saluting the crowd

As the final seconds ticked down to the start, Ainslie and Hogh-Christensen eyed each other closely but on the first windward leg, Ainslie played the shifts while the Dane went hard left. At the first mark the British defending Olympic champion was fifth and the Dane ninth. Postma was sixth and all appeared comfortable, particularly when Ben, using his 'pumping' technique moved up to second on the run.

The second beat was the tricky one particularly as Ainslie had opted to put a loose cover on the Dane and the two of them had gone to the right when there was a big shift on the left. They rounded the windward mark the second time in the last two places. As Jonathan Lobert of France and Dan Slater of New Zealand were clear at the front of the fleet, the gold medal would be resolved between the two at the back of the medal race fleet.

The Fish. (Bob Fisher, doing what he does the best.)
The wind had lightened so much that the dynamic sailing (pumping and ooching) was banned downwind and this further hampered Ben's progress - he is the best in the world at this. Starting the third and final beat, Ainslie was 10 seconds ahead and his cover became tighter. There was simply no way that Hogh-Christensen was going to get past. It was Ben, the former World Match Racing champion at his best.

The crowd on the Nothe (and around) cheered him as he crossed the finishing line. A new Olympic sailing record was established. Ben Ainslie had equalled the 'Great Dane' Paul Elvstrom's four consecutive gold medals, but his silver medal in the Laser class in 1996 puts him in a class of his own.

London 2012 website