Sailing: Percy aiming for Olympic success

Britain's rising talent in the Finn class is playing down talk of a glittering future.
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THE OLYMPIC dream is alive and well. Not, perhaps, in some of the greedier hearts populating Juan Antonio Samaranch's troubled palace in Switzerland, but in Winchester, England, home of the thoughtful, if culinarily challenged, King Alfred.

In what is almost a throw-back to an era some may have thought had gone forever, the year 2000 is, for one rising British sporting star, a return to Olympic competition for its own sake, rather than being the stepping stone to a cash bonanza, excelled at by the gifted and fortunate few, and then put in its place as the demands of a fuller career take over.

Iain Percy is 22, on course to challenge for the highest honours in Sydney, and knows that the gods are smiling on him. So does the growing support team around him. He is strong, fit, bright, articulate. He has kept on top of his game but never abandoned his formal education, putting a 2:1 degree in economics at Bristol University in the bank last year, perhaps literally in the future.

But for the next 18 months his chariot is a 14ft 9in long plastic Finn class boat with a single mast and a single sail. The fire is that Olympic flame; the focus is a medal many, including his rivals, think he can attain - the shining light at the end of the tunnel is an achievement he can bank for a lifetime. But Percy is determined to remain cool. "In the long run, I see this as one little chapter in what I am doing and I am going to turn the page after the 2000 Olympics," he says. No wonder he also says one of his aims is to have a 50-year-old head on his 22-year-old body, a combination of a machine in the peak of condition with a mind capable of running it to its greatest potential.

Others are more excitable. The manager of Britain's Olympic sailing team, John Derbyshire, says Percy is one of the top four he has ever handled. Plenty more would give their eye teeth for the five to 10 slots. "It is no surprise he is causing a stir in the Olympic sailing firmament," Derbyshire says. "He has got it all."

Percy himself plays down any hint of such excitement. Emotions are to be controlled, a poker face to be practised at all times. But he knows where to draw the line and never allows the laid-back approach to slip into arrogance or complacency. And he knows that he is fortunate to be the right man in the right place at the right time.

Plenty of people in the past have been denied the opportunity to compete at the highest level because they just could not afford to be amateur, especially in an equipment-dominated sport like sailing. But Percy combines all the best-loved ingredients of amateurism with an era of unprecedented funding. "I am totally aware of the privileged situation British sport now offers," he says, referring to the funding pouring out of the Sports Council and the Lottery.

"I can make a decision to do it for two, maybe four years, risk free. I am amazingly lucky that this has all become available over the last two or three years," he adds.

Sitting in the old staff common room of his sixth-form college, Peter Symonds, where his friend and already silver medallist, Ben Ainslie, is also bent to his studies, he knows he can achieve an Olympic goal for its own sake without changing what he wants to do in the long term. Banking seems to be the most likely career territory.

"Things seem to fall in your lap sometimes," he says, but it is not that simple. Before he won a bronze medal at the world youth championships in 1992, his sister Katrina did the same in 1990. Younger brother Richard and sister Briony also learned to sail as part of a family activity with their doctor father, David, and physiotherapist mother, Gillian. All four children were good enough to be scooped into the national youth squad.

Time in a Laser, some of it racing against Ainslie, was frustrating, as Percy fought a continual battle against growing bigger. "I had to run two hours every day, had a miserable diet of pasta and had to forego even eating cheese for nearly a year," he says.

Now, though, he has shot up from 78kg to nearly 100kg, is loving the intellectual challenge of sailing the Finn, which is as physical as a Laser but requires more tactical analysis and the performance development factor of a joint programme of mast development with British Aerospace.

In Melbourne last month he was fourth in the Finn world championships on the water and on the wish-list of a number of girls ashore. "Anyone in the top six is in the medal frame," Derbyshire says, and Percy's own rivals know he is still improving worryingly quickly.