Continuing the run of Olympic Qualification Regattas and World Championships over this early part of 2004, the 49er World Championship has just started in the Greek Capital and venue for the Olympic Games, Athens.
This regatta means different things to different people. Some have simply come for fun. You don't need to be chasing Olympic medals to appreciate the charms of the 49er. She is one of the fastest and most exciting boats in existence. But while some are smiling, just soaking up the atmosphere and the warm sun, others are frowning with intense concentration, focussed on last minute preparations that could spell the difference between death or glory.
Over 80 boats from almost thirty countries are currently entered and all are going through the necessary measurement checks prior to racing starting and continuing until 19 April.
So far there are 14 nations qualified for the Olympic Games, based on the results from the 2003 and 2004 World Championships. At this final Olympic Qualification Regatta, a further five nations will gain a coveted entry. Originally, only four nations were due to qualify at the 2004 49er World Championships, but in consultation with the IOC, ISAF has granted the double-handed dinghy open an additional qualification place. With the qualification place automatically given to Greece, as host nation, this will bring the total number of nations on the startline in August to twenty.
Current Qualified Nations are as follows:
Australia, who were granted an automatic entry to the 2000 Olympic Games as host nation, qualified for the 2004 Olympic Sailing Competition at the second opportunity, the 2003 ISAF World Championship in Cadiz. Other countries qualifying in 2003 who have not previously competed at the Olympic Games are Austria and Brazil, whilst from the 2002 49er World Championships, the Netherlands result will put them on the Olympic startline for the first time.
Finland, France, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, and Sweden who were all represented in Sydney, will be amongst the nations chasing the remaining places available at the 2004 49er World Championship, as they have yet to qualify. Joining them other top ranked nations yet to qualify include Ireland whose top crew are world ranked number 12, Belgium at a ranking of 26 and Russia at 40.
For others, the nation may have qualified but the team may not yet have been selected. A case in point is Denmark, where there are many high quality teams looking to claim their return flights to Athens. On paper, former European Champion and Olympic representative Michael HESTBAEK has the strongest record, but there are many other teams vying for Danish supremacy. Aside from Hestbaek, four other teams finished in the top 20 at last year's World Championships. Most intriguing is the recent change around in set-up of Jonathan PERSSON and Thomas IVERSEN. Helmsman Persson has swapped roles with Iversen, who is now doing the steering while Persson does the hard work pulling ropes in the front of the 49er. It's a brave move to have made so close to such a crucial event.
For other teams, the pressure is off in some respects, because they have already qualified for the Olympics. Reigning World Champions from Great Britain, Chris DRAPER
and Simon HISCOCKS, can afford to look upon this is a practice regatta. But this is still a World Championship, and you can be sure they'll be looking to claim a second crown. "We are
said Draper. "We haven't raced an important regatta for a while. And we start with a big one. These Worlds will be more like a good training race - the Games are much more important to us."
and Max GROY may have been selected for Germany, but Markus Steeg is determined to give them a run for their money. "The adrenaline is pumping for this one. Of course Marcus and Max are seen as the best Germans, the ones that will go to the Games, but we will beat them,"
Nothing is certain at such a tricky venue, however. Stéphane CHRISTIDIS hasn't been in the class long, but crewing for Marc AUDINEAU he is aiming at winning the French trials and qualifying France for the Games. He is expecting a tough fight. "It won't be easy on the water because the bay has got many islands and the wind can be influenced by the topography, such as the Meltemi wind (Northerly wind). It will mean that we must have a sharp eye outside the boat and react really quickly."
Host nation Greece is fielding ten crews, the highest placed on the ISAF World Sailing Rankings being the pair of Georges PANAGIOTIDIS and crew Alfonso PANAGIOTIDIS, at number 30.
The Opening Ceremony is taking place this evening, three days of qualifying races begin on Wednesday, followed by three days of final racing.