Sailing: Team GBR in business

Ainslie sets tone as Britain sets sail for the Olympics. By Mike Turner in Melbourne
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"WE DON'T have a faraway view of British yachting any more," says Phil Jones, the Briton who heads up the Australian Yachting Federation. "We see them down here all the time."

A big contingent have been making their way down the east coast from Brisbane via Sydney as training and racing have become year-round occupations, especially with the Olympics starting to loom.

Britain have won a medal in sailing at every Olympic Games since 1948 and quite a few before that. But that is all history in the minds of the present crop of managers and athletes. Britain, under the new buzz title of Team GBR, are going to war in an entirely different way in the run up to Sydney 2000, starting this week, 600 miles south on Port Phillip Bay, in what is one of the biggest gatherings of top yachtsmen ever outside the Olympics.

This is no midwinter swan to top up the tan. Gone are the days when the Brits were the last to leave the bar late at night midway through a hard regatta. Gone are the days when poor results could be brushed aside on the grounds that they did not really matter because everything was geared to the team selection trial and the Games every four years. This is the era of performance targets and ruthless auditing.

So, gone too are the days when top yachtsmen did something else for a living during the week and then drove at breakneck speed for the coast on Friday for a couple of days doing what they really enjoyed. Sailing at the top level is now a profession. And you can only hold your place in that profession if you keep on qualifying for the various grants that are the bread and butter, sometimes topped up by sponsorship jam.

With the switch from being funded principally by its governing body, the Royal Yachting Association, to the Sports Council and the National Lottery, the sport has a public accountability, based on national guidelines. Good results in the seven world championships being run for Olympic class yachts are essential. And that means medals.

Britain won silver in two classes in Atlanta in 1996, Ben Ainslie in the Laser, John Merricks and Ian Walker in the 470. The Lasers have had three days of racing here, while the other classes start today and tomorrow. Ainslie, still only 21, is determined to win gold next year, and is intent here on shaking the confidence of the man who beat him last time, Brazil's Robert Scheidt. He is making a good fist of it so far, winning four races in succession to lead the 142-strong fleet.

But the Merricks and Walker partnership has gone after the death of Merricks in a car crash in Italy last year, the first in a double blow for the tight-knit Olympic squad. The man almost certain to campaign the two-man Star in Sydney for the second time, Glyn Charles, was lost in the Sydney-to-Hobart race storm two weeks ago.

Quietly and discreetly a replacement plan for Charles is being formulated, but the world dominance of the 470 class is taking a long time to rebuild. By contrast, in the newest of the Olympic classes, the skiff-like 49er, Britain have talent in depth. The Budgen brothers, Adrian Stead and Zeb Elliott, and Walker, now teamed with Tim Robinson, are joined by Paul Brotherton and Neal McDonald. The national champion, Ian Barker, is normally paired with Simon Hiscocks, but a blood clot on the lung which forced Hiscocks to fly home, has led to a temporary pairing with Australian Daniel Phillips, half of the 1998 world championship winning partnership.

Both Stead and Walker would dearly like to be involved this year, also, in a British America's Cup campaign. As would the 1996 Soling representative Andy Beadsworth. But Beadsworth's primary task is to beat Lawrie Smith, making a return to the class in which he won bronze in 1992. Smith himself may have to turn his attention full time to America's Cup if the continuing and convoluted negotiations for a major sponsorship injection prove successful.