New National Sailing Academy looks to 2012

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The Independent Online

If the doubters, and there are many of them, think the 2102 Olympic Games will be a failure they should look just five miles from the old-fashioned donkey rides, Punch and Judy show, and sand sculptures on the beach at Weymouth south to what is British sailing’s new-fashioned Wimbledon or Wembley.

On international parade this week, staging the first major showcase of the London Games, is the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, formerly a naval base. The Olympic objectives of legacy and heritage are already built in. The target for the £15m. facility is a cascade of medals in 2012.

Flocking to an operational, but still to be completed, venue are over 700 sailors in over 500 boats from 41 countries for the biggest of this year’s World Cup series under the flag of International Sailing Federation. For the Games the maximum is 380 athletes. The paralympic classes are all part and parcel.

The 15-knot breeze on the opening day yesterday gave them a brisk welcome. “The conditions were very difficult with a short chop on top of the rollers,” said the 43-year old Paul Brotherton, who, with 29-year old crew Paul Asquith, made a spectacular return to the 49er class by taking silver at the recent European championships. “It was about as difficult as you could get, but we have a fantastic facility down here. It is absolutely world class.” With five in the top 10 49ers at the end of the opening day’s three races, the fight for British supremacy is on.

Whatever the architectural and visual shortcomings, Britain is moving into another campaign to rule the Olympic waves in a first class home and a confident, if stretched, event management team is coping with the biggest regatta of its type in the world this year.

Twenty-five years ago, on that same beach with the same attractions, the boats were lined up on the sand for what was Weymouth Olympic Week. Princess Anne turned up to show support, and the then Olympic coach, Rod Carr, was explaining he had to manage by consent. You could claim petrol and ferry fares for overseas regattas but, after that, competitors were pretty much on their own.

How things have moved on. Britain had boycotted the 1980 Olympic sailing in Russia because of the invasion of Afghanistan, and was to win just one medal four years later at Long Beach, Jo Richards and Peter Allam in the Flying Dutchman.

But Carr was already plotting bigger things. Weymouth and Portland council was then, and remained, on side. John Major in 1997 introduced the national lottery, which changed the face of sports finance, Britain had a depth of talent which could be managed more and more effectively by clever coaching and a grip on the cash tap.

The result was five medals in both Athens and Sydney, then six, four of them gold, in China. Carr moves on from his elevated post as chief executive of the national governing body, the Royal Yachting Association, next year – his successor should be announced in the next month – and his will be a hard act to follow.

The man in his 1984 job since 2001, Olympic manager Stephen Park, is mindful of 1984 in other ways. That was the year the host country won a medal in all the sailing events. This week is not when Park wants to sweep all before him.

“This is the very tangible start to the British sailing campaign for 2012,” he says. “The wave is building. We need to get to the crest and ride it all the way to the finish line. We have to go in with the attitude that we can win a medal in all 10 events. Everyone is already moving at 120 per cent. to make sure that we deliver.”

An aim shared with UK Sport, which hands out money to elite competitors with one hand and money to elite events with the other. The Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta will be part-financed by UK Sport until 2012 as part of a £20m, events programme. “One of our aims is to change the face and flavour of Olympic sailing as part of ensuring that we are again at least third in the medal table at our home games,” says Esther Williams. “We are very performance-focussed.”

As is the event manager David Campbell-James. He has a relatively small team internally, a relatively large team of support, like umpires, and 230 volunteers drawn from all over the country. He knows that he is responsible for something that can deliver £2m. to the local economy; even more important, he is an integral part of delivering what could be Britain’s biggest haul of Olympic medals.