Sailing: Ainslie riding the wave of British optimism

Olympic silver-medallist is taking on the best.
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The Independent Online
GREY SKIES, a chill wind, and rain, lots of rain, must have made it feel more like home as Ben Ainslie took to the waters of Port Phillip Bay yesterday for the opening race of the Laser World Championship. The 21- year-old is one of 59 in the squad of Olympic sailors sent by Britain to contest the World Sailing Championships, including seven of the 11 classes which will be doing battle 600 miles further north for medals in Sydney in September next year.

Ainslie, winner of a silver medal in 1996 and desperate for gold in 2000, is that breed of sportsman who pursues a punishing training regime and does not need the additional stimulus of a big occasion. He just wants to win everything every time, and this time there are 141 yachtsmen trying to stop him.

So this is a big occasion, much bigger than the Olympics, where only one entry per country is permitted in any one class, where some classes need pre-qualifying, where many countries do not have representatives in all 11 classes, and where the total allocation to the sport is 445. Here there are 57 countries - there were 78 in Atlanta - but nearly as many competitors, and that is with three classes missing, men's and women's boards, and the restored two- man keelboat, the Star. But it includes many non-Olympic classes, including the International 14.

"This event is immense," says the president of the sports world governing body, Paul Henderson, who sees it not only as a blueprint for the future but one in which the International Sailing Federation will force the Olympic classes to take part. "Everyone wants their own little empire, but personally I believe the pie we can bake together is bigger than the individual pieces."

Denmark is bidding strongly for a pre-Athens event in 2003 and Henderson, annoyed that the Star class "reneged" on an agreement to hold its world championship in Melbourne, said "all the classes will have to sign a contract to stage their world championships together. If they don't sign they don't want to be an Olympic class."

And he said the ISAF should be looking at how to draw up a list of venues for staging world championship regattas. "It's the old boy network that is the problem," he said. "We have to elevate some of the events as close as possible to the prestige of the Olympics, and to do that we have to break down individual empires."

The need to make greater the relevance of major regattas between Olympics is great. Henderson sees the developments in football, where a World Cup every two years is being discussed, and athletics, where the world championships now rival the Olympics. And he knows that, for too long, the competitors have shrugged off poor results, saying they do not matter because the Olympics are the only true goal. But, in an age of major public funding, performance targets are increasingly required before money is released.

All the major countries have sent full-strength squads to Australia for concurrent events which, although hosted by the nine leading yacht clubs in Melbourne, are centrally co-ordinated and managed.

Britain's Olympic manager, John Derbyshire, said: "This is a great opportunity for all the countries to show off their Olympic strength and we hope to be in the top five nations. For one or two, this is the start of their selection process."

The British system of selection, which may vary from class to class, will be published next month, but is likely to vary considerably from either the sudden death, one-week trial, or the early pre-selection processes through which the country has swung in recent years. Britain, he said, "is looking pretty good in five classes and we are working hard to close the gap in the others. We are also already looking ahead to 2004."

The event runs until 17 January and at the end of it there will be some confirmation of the pecking order between the countries as well as the progress being made by individual rivals within the UK for the single Olympic representation. The Australians are confident of a strong showing, but there are further major tests for them and their rivals at Hyeres, Medemblik and Kiel in the spring and summer.

HOW THEY LINE UP IN MELBOURNE

LASER

BEN AINSLIE, at 21 and already with an Olympic silver medal in the bank, still reigns supreme on the home front, and it is rare for him to lose a race to a British rival in a series. He is the current world sailor of the year and has beaten the 1996 Olympic gold medallist, Brazil's Robert Scheidt, three times since then. These two, and Australia's Michael Blackburn, hold the edge over the others.

FINN

A YEAR older than Ben Anslie, Iain Percy is making an impressive transition from the Laser, taking third place at the 1998 European Championship. He is both working with and sailing against Richard Stenhouse. The men to beat are the 1996 gold medallist, Poland's Mateusz Kusznierewicz, and the man whom he beat into silver, now ranked No 1, Belgium's Sebastien Godefroid.

EUROPE

SHIRLEY ROBERTSON is bidding to go to her third Olympics still as the only one to have represented Britain in the women's single- hander. She was fourth in 1996 and continues to put a lot of effort into development of her sail design having had to abandon the work done on a carbon fibre mast. May still be looking at top six instead of top two, which should be contested by defending world champion and world sailor of the year, Carolijn Brouwer, of the Netherlands, and her national rival Margriet Matthijsse.

470 MEN

THE GAP left by the death of John Merricks and the consequent departure from the class of his 1996 silver medal partner, Ian Walker, was always going to be a hard one to fill. Current national champion Nick Rogers, partnered by Joe Glanfield, is, at 22, still making the transition from being a youth champion to winning in the senior ranks. A strongly- contested class in which France provides the current world champions, rivalling the 1996 gold medallists from Ukraine, with the Portuguese, Finnish and American crews chasing.

470 WOMEN

A TOP 10 place would be something worth celebrating for a class in which Britain has sometimes promised much but rarely delivered. Bethan Raggatt and Sarah Webb remain the No 1s, but they will be looking over their shoulders at the new pairing of Liz Walker and the returned three-times Olympic crew Sue Carr-Parkin. And they will be looking up the track to the No 1s, also from the Ukraine, Ruslava Toron and Olena Pakholchik.

49ER

THE NEWEST and, it is hoped, the most telegenic of the Olympic classes, Britain has done well in this two-man, skiff-type dinghy, rivalling the Australians, on whose home waters it was designed and developed. Ian Barker and Simon Hiscocks are national champions, but the Budgen brothers, Andy and Ian, have been showing pace internationally and the partnerships of Tim Robinson and Ian Walker, Adrian Stead and Zeb Elliott, plus Paul Brotherton and Neil McDonald, are testimony to the boat's ability to attract the best.

SOLING

ANDY BEADSWORTH is the man in office, having come fourth in 1996 and, with Richard Sydenham joining Barry Parkin as crew, won the Sydney International at the end of last year. But the 1988 representative and 1992 bronze medallist Lawrie Smith is back with his old crew of Rob Cruikshank and Ossie Stewart. Their private battle could be overshadowed by the German triple gold medallist and reigning Olympic champion, Jochen Scheumann, and the current world champion, the Russian Georgy Shaiduko.

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