The golden fleet plot a fresh course for Beijing

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The Independent Online

The British sailing team topped the sailing medal table and returned Team GB's best medal haul across any sport at the conclusion of aregatta that fulfilled pre-Games promise for some but broke the spirit of others. Five medals, the same number as Sydney, were won, but there have been surprises and upsets as well.

It is a week now since Ben Ainslie and Shirley Robertson, Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton were crowned Olympic champions after Ainslie and Robertson repeated their golden performances of Sydney. Last weekend turned out to be a climactic point for Britain as by Saturday night Nick Rogers and Jo Glanfield had returned from a dogfight with America with silver and there was the prospect of plenty more to come.

But where the first week had offered the occasional strong Meltemi blast of breeze that sailors prefer, the second week was a light-wind lottery. Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks were inconsolable as they stepped ashore from the 49er race course having secured a bronze. Like Ainslie they were racing not just for the podium but for the top of it. Draper was speechless at the press conference but by the time the medal ceremony music was stirring the Union flags, both he and Hiscocks had realised they had achieved something and that many other teams had come expecting great things were going home empty-handed.

And while the light winds were frustrating Britain's Star and Tornado catamaran sailors - Iain Percy and Steve Mitchell, Leigh McMillan and Mark Bulkeley - they came to assistance of Nick Dempsey, who started the final men's Mistral race in fourth and needing a mathematical miracle to rise to glory. Dempsey won the race and the capricious winds catapulted the Brazilian Ricardo Santos not just out of gold medal position but off the podium, giving a shocked and delighted Dempsey the bronze.

Meanwhile life was still difficult to impossible for the Star and Tornado sailors and while McMillan and Bulkeley would have been delighted with a shot at the medals, for Percy and Mitchell - former Star world champions and one of the favourites for victory - swilling around in the low to middle order was very hard to take. It never improved for them: a stiff Meltemi breeze fired through the sailing venue on Friday but that was the only day of rest. By that time Percy and Mitchell's chance of a medal was gone and the pair were wrestling with their demons in a British camp where so many others had found success.

So where now for a team who exceeded their wildest dreams in Sydney and outperformed their understated predictions here? Already British team managers have visited the Chinese sailing site and are following the blueprint that rewarded them so well here in Athens; team accommodation, management offices and training facilities just a stone's throw from the sailing venue have been a huge help while others have had to trek across town to the athletes' village.

But who will be back? "I would love to sail in China," said Ainslie who now goes off to join Emirates Team New Zealand for the 2007 America's Cup. Percy and Mitchell are already talking about revenge and others are talking about an upgrade. And there is new talent coming through in several classes including the Laser, where Nick Thompson recently won the youth world championship. "It feels fantastic to have won two golds," said Robertson. "But then you can't help thinking, 'Wouldn't three be nice. ...' "

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