The real reasons why Britain rules the waves
Funding has helped our Olympic sailors enjoy gold but just as important is the fact that they do everything – from booking flights to scrubbing the hull. Robin Scott-Elliot goes on board
Wednesday 08 June 2011
Iain Percy sits easily in a large leather sofa. He points out the other teams gathered in the noisy yacht club bar. Danes, French, Czechs, Brazilians, Germans, Italians, Australians, Americans and others loll around; outside, row after row of boats bob in the morning sunshine on the marina's gentle waters. Beyond the marina's guard, conditions are not much different; there is barely a breath of wind and for the sailors that means downtime.
The Brazilians – one half of whom is Britain's old Olympic adversary, Robert Scheidt – get the Percy blessing, but he is less taken by the occupants of the French boat. "Oh yeah, nobody likes the French," confirms Giles Scott, one of the rising stars of Team GB, at dinner later that night.
Percy's star has risen. He already has two Olympic gold medals – even if he cannot actually remember where they are. "Umm, at mum and dad's?" he wonders in his only moment of doubt during our time together. Now, once again in productive partnership with Andrew Simpson, Percy is strong favourite to add a third at next year's London Olympics, and in so doing earn a lofty status as one of Britain's great Olympians.
The Majorca regatta signalled the start of the countdown to London, or to be more precise Weymouth, as that is where the sailing events will take place – in the home waters of the English Channel. The French will not like that.
They are on those waters this week, in the Sail for Gold regatta which began on Monday, another key staging post en route to the Games. Sailors' lives, their sporting ones at any rate, are run on four-year cycles with the Olympics providing the most emphatic of full stops. Campaigners as experienced as Percy and Simpson will halve that; do their own thing for a time, America's Cup projects, crewing, earning – cashing in effectively on their Olympic achievements to pay the rent.
For most Olympic sports money matters, pennies are counted every step of the way towards the podium, and sailing is the most expensive. No other sport has such costly equipment. Comparisons with Formula One are drawn and it is not only because of high technological fiddlings in the quest for an edge over opponents but also because of the need to husband money in what is a financially draining sport, and – here's the difference from F1 – a sport that is far from flooded with money.
Team GB is the best equipped, resourced, coached and managed (and successful – there is a connection), but it is the sailors themselves who juggle the day-to-day running of their programs. How do we get the boat from Weymouth to Palma? Where are we going to stay? What needs doing to the boat? Who is going to jump in the water and scrub the bottom? And above all, how much will it cost?
"We have to manage everything from top to bottom," says Percy. "We are chairman, manager and players – and groundsman. We manage ourselves, work out our budget – if we had an amazing sponsorship deal we could get someone to come and help with our boat but our bank account needs to go on sails, development, the list goes on. But being involved in all that is important."
The medals ceremony at the end of the Majorca regatta – Percy and Simpson, to no one's surprise, won the Star class – was marked by British itchy feet. They had another boat to catch. Many of them were booked on the midnight ferry back to the Spanish mainland and had to heave the boats on to trailers and head for the port. Ahead lay a long drive back home. "We do everything," explains Percy, "from the travel, booking flights, booking hotels, transportation, driving the boat back after events. Beginning to end, you do everything."
Team GB is run by Ian Parks, a intense Glaswegian with piercing eyes with whom comparisons with Alex Ferguson are impossible to resist. For a start there is the unequalled record of success. Then there is an obvious will to win, a (good-natured) suspicion of the media and an immaculate, forensic attention to detail.
"We want people to have responsibility for their own programme," says Parks. "There are financial restrictions but on the other side of the coin there are good reasons why they should do that, look after the equipment, know where they are going – get there! Rather than just turning up and playing. It gives it a context."
There is a sense that Percy would be bored if it was simply a matter of getting in the boat and sailing. He appears to enjoy the micro-management of a project that has a budget in the region of £500,000 per Olympic cycle. UK Sport funding provides a top level individual annual award – in effect for medal contenders – of £27,328, although that figure will decline the greater the levels of sponsorship an athlete attracts. The sailors are well backed by Skandia – who in turn see the sailors, tanned, polite, successful and largely middle class (like sports such as golf, sailors from the wrong side of the tracks are unsurprisingly rare) as the ideal ambassadors for their brand – but the level of funding is closely guarded.
"We are lucky in our backing – we cover our costs, but we have never made any money out of it," says Percy, who lives in Valencia but is moving back to the UK for Games preparation. "We plan how we will pay for it – and if we can't we have to find more money or change our programme. I'm not down – I'm neutral, neutral for 12 years of Olympic sport."
For the sailors there is an expectation about London, not least from Parks himself. They are the host nation and the world's No 1 sailing nation. After the Beijing Games, Britain's most successful on the water for a century, Parks declared the target for 2012 was to win every event. Percy and Simpson snatched a stomach-churning gold in the final race in 2008 and anything other than a return to the top of the podium next year would be a huge surprise, and a major disappointment.
"I know with my mates how much more interest there is in London," says Percy. "A regatta like this, none of my friends would have cared before, but they're all on the phone, texting me. I'm like, 'Where've you been for the last 10 years?'"
Percy's mobile rings. It is Ben Ainslie, the best Olympic sailor Britain has produced. "You only ring when you're winning," quips Simpson. There is an easy camaraderie among them. Percy relays the message then they discuss who will have first call on one of the coaches. The team is impressively supported through coaching, physiotherapists, a psychologist, a meteorologist – there are similarities between the sailors and the British cyclists in being the envy of their sporting world and there is healthy rivalry between the two teams. Majorca is a favoured winter destination of the cyclists too, and occasionally their paths cross in the island's mountains on training rides – cycling is favoured by the sailors for fitness – and impromptu races break out much to the fury of coaches from either side.
Ainslie is based on the other side of the bay, a bouncy journey in one of the team's inflatables, with the Finn class. Scott is there too. Scott, a tall, relaxed young man, can claim to be the second best in the world in the Finn. Unfortunately the rules of Olympic sailing mean each nation gets only one entry per class. Parks strenuously protects the selection process for Team GB, but for Scott to make his first Games he has to see off an Olympic legend, a man who has won three gold medals. His chances of making London, and the genuinely once in a lifetime opportunity of a home Games, are slim.
The wind has finally picked up and Scott prepares his boat for day two of racing. "It's part Formula One, part chess and part snakes and ladders," he says. The small boats stream out to the start like a mini-armada; close up the race itself is spectacular if confusing, certainly to the outsider. There lies sailing's weakness – spectators cannot get close up and distance takes away the intense drama and ability to witness the sheer physical demands of the event. "We will never have the stadium effect," says Percy. "Sailing is a minority sport."
Scott finished behind Ainslie in Palma; a British one-two where only one is happy. It was a long journey home. It was Percy and Simpson's first race of the campaign, the second comes this week; a dress rehearsal for the biggest moment of their sporting lives.
"Winning is a relief, especially when so much is expected of you," sums up Percy. "In sailing an Olympic gold medal is the pinnacle. So it matters to win gold, really matters."
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