Why sailing is not a spectator sport
The action is out there but, asks Chris McGrath, does anyone actually know what's happening?
Now this, plainly, is where they should have staged the beach volleyball. There's plenty of room, after all. On a perfect holiday lunchtime, the great sandy crescent of Weymouth Bay yesterday stretched under the sun. The top end, away from the big screens, lay almost completely deserted. Most of the guesthouses along the elegant Georgian esplanade forlornly advertised vacancies. And even as the nation toasted the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, the regatta that was supposed to fill every bed in the town itself slumbered, on the face of it, as arcane and remote as ever.
Ben Ainslie had contrived to win that fourth gold by finishing ninth of 10 in his medal race. Surely all this Byzantine scoring, all that tilting and bobbing on the horizon, qualified sailing as the most mystifying and unrewarding spectator sport of all? And surely even Britain's growing infatuation with the Games could not justify anyone actually paying for the privilege of squinting from a hill where they are proud only to take Visa.
Well, as it turns out, that is the limit of their folly. For it is perfectly possible to get very nearly as good a view for nothing – from the old harbour wall; from a knoll beyond the ticketed area; from the narrow shoreline just beneath the Nothe Fort itself. And these places also, surprisingly enough, provide a genuine ringside seat.
The Duchess of Cambridge was viewing proceedings yesterday from a launch but might well have preferred, as a royal box, these royal rocks instead. And if it's good enough for Brad Funk, it should certainly be good enough for any layman driven nuts by a fruitless quest for Olympics tickets.
Funk narrowly missed out on representing the US here, but his wife, Anna Tunnicliffe, is fancied for gold with the women's match racing team. And here was this Funk dude from Florida, watching the fleet from a boulder, savouring the tang of salt and seaweed, as kids dredged rock pools and the cognoscenti peered into binoculars.
True, those beyond the steel fences round the ticketed area, just a few yards away, had a big screen and commentary to elucidate the intricacies of the regatta. But here on the waterline the race unfolded quite intelligibly within a few hundred yards. "This is great," Funk said. "You don't quite get a bird's-eye view on the shifts, like they do up the hill. But you're really in the action here. For spectators, this must be one of the best Olympics in history."
The sailors themselves have paid a heavy price for that. The winds beneath the Victorian fort are notoriously fitful, yet have to be harnessed precisely when the stakes are highest. "Mother Nature can throw you a curveball out there," Funk said. "There's no trends, no consistency. You can sail spot on all week, and then find a random element thrown into the medal races. It's unfortunate, but they're trying to give them a show."
Even with so lavish a concession –one likened, by experts, to staging a downhill race over slush and ice for the sake of a better view – it may leave the public bewildered, unless they have first made an effort to grasp the series standings and ramifications. The alternative was to join the families crowding into a fan zone, back on the beach. Yes, there were people here after all. On Sunday, they said there were 15,000 watching Ainslie on one big screen and Andy Murray on another. Their children, this famous "inspired generation", teemed into the adjacent sports arena and tried out all manner of sports, on and off the water. That's gratis, too.
And, if all else fails, there is always that view across the cobalt and emerald bay to the Purbeck Cliffs: priceless. If you can't quite see the sailing, or even if you just don't see the point of it, you can still see the best of Britain.
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