quinta-feira, 2 de agosto de 2012

London 2012: Spectators and sailors relishing the Weymouth waves

London 2012: Spectators and sailors relishing the Weymouth waves
Steven Morris in Weymouth and Portland
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 August 2012 20.07 BST
Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, who are leading Team GB in the two-handed Star keelboat class at the London 2012 regatta. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

You don't need a ticket to come and see it either. Plenty of vantage points, a free park and ride from Dorchester, big screens on the beach and arts festival to boot. Do it.

The Olympic sailing regatta is a wonderful, slow-burning affair. Competitors race over a week or more to make sure they are tested in a variety of conditions: windy, calm, wavy, flat, sunny, rainy. It means the best sailors tend to win through, but a pleasing consequence is that you get to know the characters and their idiosyncrasies.
So, you witness the contrast in the treble gold medallist Ben Ainslie. He is intense and fierce on the water as he yanks on ropes and watches out for wind-shifts and waves but gentle, calm and careful when he washes down his heavy Finn dinghy, Rita, afterwards.
You see the seamless teamwork of Ainslie's old friends, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, who are leading for GB in the two-handed Star keelboat class, the oldest and most elegant of the Olympic boats taking part in the regatta. On the water they do not need to talk too much: they have competed with and against each other since they were nine-year-olds and have won Olympic gold together. Each knows just what his job is.
You notice, too, how the favourites in the 49er fleet, Aussies Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, seem always to be last out on the water. Too cool to hurry, they have a habit of leaping barefoot on to their nippy, unstable skiff just as it seems certain the boat will sail off towards the horizon without them and only don their sailing boots when they are under way.
And the windsurfers are a joy. They are a breed apart, padding around the shore in bare feet with high-tech sunglasses, all high-fives and slaps on the back, before becoming graceful, powerful athletes on the water, skimming across the waves and leaving a wake of white. This is a poignant Games for them. Their sport is due to be replaced next time with kite-surfing and they have one last chance to grab gold.
One hundred and fifty miles from the hustle of Olympic Park, this is a beautiful, vast venue. Two courses are being used in Weymouth Bay off the Jurassic Coast. A third course, which can be the breeziest because the wind whips unchecked across the shingle of Chesil Beach, nestles within Portland Harbour. The final one, the Nothe, is the trickiest. Lying close to shore beneath the ticketed spectator area in Weymouth, the winds are shifty and the tides awkward. But both spectators and sailors have enjoyed the Nothe. For the former it has helped that the weather has been kind. Two blankets are advised – one to sit on, the other to huddle under. And a good brolly. There is little shelter and if it does pour the onlookers will be about as wet as the sailors.
The athletes are relishing it. They are not used to hearing the roar of the crowd because they habitually race far out to sea and say they are being inspired by the waving flags and cheering fans.
On Wednesday the Nothe was treated to the thrilling sight of windsurfer Nick Dempsey haring past a Greek rival on the line to go into bronze medal position with just over a third of his regatta done. "The Nothe course is very tricky, very hard, it's very easy to come unstuck on it," he said. "But the crowd was proper amazing."
The spectators were also treated to a close-up view of a new event – women's match racing, a head-to-head contest between two boats rather than a fleet race. They watched as GB's three-woman team circled the New Zealand boat at the race start like a wrestler planning an attack before deliberately – and legitimately – bashing into it. The British boat should qualify for the knockout stage.
There were solid results for other British sailors. After a dunking earlier in the week, GB's 49er crew finished fourth and second in their two races on Wednesday and climbed to fifth place overall. GB's Laser dinghy sailor, Paul Goodison, the reigning Olympic champion, continued to fight back after suffering a back problem and is staying in touch in sixth place. Making her debut in the Laser Radial dinghy, Alison Young has enjoyed an impressive opening to her first Games and is fourth, while windsurfer Bryony Shaw is sixth.
But it is wrong to focus just on the British crews. The Olympic boat-park and slipway at the National Sailing Academy is a great people-watching spot. Though races do not begin until at least noon, sailors turn up early, padding over from the athletes' village on Portland in flip-flops, trainers or wellies. Their gear is shipped in containers, which they turn into little home-from-homes. They feel a bit like cramped, metallic embassies, pieces of foreign soil in Dorset. The Canadians have pinned a sign outside their container: "This is Canada … relentless, fierce, world-class."
The sailors spend hours in and out of their containers and working on their boats, checking everything is in its place, tinkering, trying to work out a way of getting a tiny bit more speed. It is here that you can watch the likes of the great Spanish sailors Iker Martínez and Xabier Fernández, who won gold in Athens and silver in Beijing in the 49er class. They have just returned from a nine-month round-the world race and, with weather‑battered faces and tired eyes, look as if they could do with a rest.
They are sailing royalty but it is not just about big names. In the Laser class men from no fewer than 49 countries are competing in the men's and 41 in the women's version, the Laser Radial. Among the Laser competitors is a 20-year-old called Ilia Ignatev, the only sailor to make it here from Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked central Asian country once part of the Soviet Union. Another 20-year-old, Helema Williams, is the sole competitor from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific at the regatta. The daughter of a pearl farmer, she has named her Laser Radial dinghy Lady Pearl in his honour. Sadly both are in last place.
There are only three African countries represented here with one boat each – Egypt, Tunisia and South Africa. One of the very few black faces in the boat-park is that of Jim Asenathi, who grew up in a poor township near Cape Town and was introduced to boats through a sailing club set up to build self-esteem among young people from deprived backgrounds. He begins on Thursday in the 470 class with Roger Hudson, the son of Olympic sailor David Hudson.
At the other end of the scale are GB, France and the USA, who all have the maximum number of sailors (16) and boats (10). Team GB's sailing team, backed with Lottery cash and years of knowhow, is a powerful machine aiming to top the medals table for a fourth time in a row. But it has not been plain sailing. Ainslie, red hot favourite to win his fourth gold, has been beaten six times in a row by a genial Dane called Jonas Hogh-Christensen, who quit the sport after a disappointing Beijing Olympics and pursued a career in the music industry, promoting such artists as Madonna and the Rolling Stones.
Ainslie, who was on a rest day on Wednesday, must wish Hogh-Christensen had not made a comeback. Ainslie has five races left to find a way of beating the Dane and give the crowds that will gather on the Nothe for the medal race on Sunday something to really roar about.

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