Britain's sailors enter the melting-pot

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The Independent Online

The open air sauna that is the Olympic sailing track faces its first big test today as two of Britain's brightest medal hopes, Ben Ainslie in the Finn singlehander, and the three-woman team of Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson in the Yngling keelboat, open their accounts.

Ainslie, who is hoping to avoid a tendency to bomb in the early stages of a regatta and then storm into a comeback, is riding a medal record of silver in 1996 and gold in both 2000 and 2004 as well as being current world and European champion. He is "the governor", unbeaten in the Finn class since the last games, the undisputed king of the boat park, and the other 25 Finn contenders may be left scrapping for the minor medals.

Two of the three blondes in a boat, the Sarahs, are also defending gold won in Athens and need to demoralise the Americans and the Russians early to give them what should be a power-play platform. All 400 competitors from 62 countries - Britain is one of only four with every cannon loaded - are hoping that conditions will be worthy of Olympic competition.

The final practice race on Thursday could not go ahead as the notoriously light winds returned, making any serious progress impossible against a roaring three-knot tide. At least the green carpet plague of seaweed-like algae, which has taken an army of soldiers and volunteers to clear and necessitated the hasty erection of a 20-mile long barrier boom, is not in evidence.

Slightly reluctantly, the Royal Yachting Association's Olympic manager Stephen Park has bowed to outside pressure and increased his medal haul prediction from three to four -"we were being accused of setting a soft target," he explained - but, significantly, he said he would be disappointed if every member of the British team were not involved in the medal shoot-out which is restricted to the top 10 in the 11 classes.

Listen to Stuart Alexander talk to Stephen Park

Cycling may be seen as the biggest hope for the greatest number of British medals, but, if the chips fall favourably, the sailors could pull in even more than the five they have bagged at each of the last two Olympics.

That is, if there are medal races in all 11 classes and fortunes are favouring British interests in all of them. Apart from light winds threatening a programme of what should be 11 races, 10 plus one, in every class except the 49er, which should be 15 plus one, there is also the fog factor.

When that descends like a sickly shroud, the sailors cannot sometimes even see each other, never mind a mark of the course half a mile away. The regatta rules have had to be written so that, in the event of the programme being cut down, only one race would be needed to decide the medal winners.

But they have now been modified so that there will be no double points medal decider until at least six races have been sailed. What has not been modified is the vulnerability which the choice of Qingdao has created of turning what should be a pinnacle regatta into a five-ring lottery. As the Chinese threaten, the sailing may be in for interesting times.

Qingdao is about 450 miles from Beijing, a city of six million people, and at times about half of them seem to be in volunteer shirts. The distance meant that only the 470 women pair of Christina Bassadone and Saskia Clark was able to join the rest of Team GB for the opening ceremony parade in Beijing last night (Friday). The real fireworks begin on the track.