Sailing reaps benefits of winning culture

The British boat skimmed sweetly over the finish — that’s what it’s like down at the sailing these days; another day, another medal.

Chris Draper’s response was unequivocal: a dirty great deck-busting, heel-bruising stamp. Disappointment seared him. The medal was bronze.

Draper and Simon Hiscocks sailed in third in the 49er class and no; they were not happy, not happy at all. ‘We’re a bit down,’ Hiscocks said. Draper added: ‘We came here to win the gold.’


And if all this seems a trifle ungracious, it is not. It is just a reflection of the high expectations and high achievements of Great Britain’s sailors.

They are the most successful Britain team at these Games, with two golds, one silver and two bronzes. The cyclists are the only threat, with an almost equally impressive tally of two golds, a silver and a bronze.

Britain will finish as the top nation in Olympic sailing, just as they did in Sydney four years ago.

In Barcelona in 1992, the sailors got one bronze; in Atlanta four years later, two silvers. There has, then, been a bit of a sea change in British sailing. The Brits have bossed the regatta here and although it was a frustrating day, it was also a day of high achievement, a day that confirmed the recent but dazzling tradition of excellence.

The 49ers are sweet boats to watch, keel-less little things that seem scarcely to touch the surface of the water while the two-man crew leaps around with athletic precision and hangs dizzyingly from the trapeze.

It was good to go to sea, an essential part of any visit to Greece, for the sea swirls and rolls throughout the history and mythology of this thrillingly ancient place.

The sea swayed, rolled and tossed them, all blue with white wings, as George Seferis wrote in one of his sea-washed poems. The white wings of the sails didn’t get much air to fill them, though; airs that were neither nipping nor eager.

The British boys sought the best breeze, fearful of finding that most dreaded of things on a light air day, ‘a hole in the wind’.

They duelled piratically with the boat from Ukraine, knowing that to beat them by more than one boat would take them to silver and make it a more satisfying day altogether.

But it was not to be. ‘It’s been a long four years,’ Draper said. ‘It takes up my life. This is what we do, this is what we will continue to do.’

And that is what the Britain sailing team will continue to do. The medal tally is final now but — by any reckoning — it has been a deeply satisfactory performance.

No sport can claim to have quite the same success at the tricky task of converting lottery money into medals; converting, if you like, national folly into national joy.

This is the Olympic value sport. The sudden surge to effectiveness has coincided with the lottery money — it began after the Games of 1996 — so much so that it looks as if the whole business is about throwing money at a problem.

Which is all very well, but how come all the other lottery-funded Olympic sports aren’t as successful as sailing?

The answer is, sailing people say, that the lottery money came at the right time to an organisation that was already well geared for producing elite performers and elite performances. Medals, in other words.

It is reckoned that, even without lottery money, Britain would be a top-three sailing nation in a competitive and widely contested sport — medals have been spread over more than 20 nations.

It comes to a culture. And a victorious culture cannot be established overnight. Or even in four years, as the Britain swimming team found out to their great distress.

Bill Sweetenham always said that the Athens Games were just a staging post; that his first four years as performance director were not enough.

He has consistently promised that we will see the fruits of a properly established winning culture in four years’ time, in Beijing.

Rod Carr, chairman of the Royal Yachting Association, said that British sailing now has ‘a really bloody strong culture’, but that it was ‘modest and understated’.

What is so intriguing about such a culture is the way it enshrines winning more or less in its constitution. It really is true that winning begets winning.

It is an infectious thing — one team member wins, the next one expects to, or at least is totally unsurprised to be in a winning position.

Victory of a teammate changes a competitor’s attitude about himself, about herself. Winning becomes unsurprising, perhaps even inevitable.

These five medals, including the two extra-shiny ones, come as a result of intelligent, thought-through planning.

You don’t spread the money out too thin so that everyone can have a go, not if your job is to seek Olympic medals.

But you don’t just bung all your money at a few individuals at the top; you plan deep and you plan long.

Five medals at the World Youth Championships bear that out very pleasantly.

There has been wailing and gnashing of British teeth at the swimming and, in athletics, an awful lot of tears.

But if any Brits are upset down at the sailing regatta, it is because a bronze is a disappointment.

‘We’ll be happy tomorrow,’ Hiscocks said.