The Final Olympic Qualification Regatta before the Olympic Sailing Competition in Athens in August starts tomorrow as the world's single-handed sailors in the Laser Class travel to Bodrum in Turkey for their World Championship.
Of all the equipment used at the Olympic Sailing Competition, the Laser holds the record for the most number of nations who compete at the World Championship. Here in Turkey, for the Senior Worlds at least, there are 62 nations represented, and 148 individual sailors.
This World Championship is so big that the International Laser Class Association imposes allocation criteria on entries, in order to keep numbers to a manageable level. The number of entries granted to member nations of the Laser Class Association depends the number of Laser sailors in the country, but as well as allocation, there are also places available to sailors by qualification at a number of pre-determined Regional Championships. Gustavo LIMA
(POR), as last year's World Champion, automatically receives an entry to defend the title he won at the ISAF World Championships in Cadiz in 2003.
The depth of history in the Laser class is immense. Often dominated by one sailor for a number of years, names such as Glenn BOURKE (AUS), Ed BAIRD
(USA), Ben AINSLIE
(GBR) and Robert SCHEIDT
(BRA) have all been multiple World Championship winners. Gustavo LIMA (POR), 2003 World Champion, ended a reign of six on the trot for 1996 Olympic Gold medallist Robert SCHEIDT.
As well as hosting the largest number of entrants of the Olympic classes, the Laser is also granted the most slots for the forthcoming Olympic Sailing Competition in Athens.
There are 32 nations currently qualified for Athens 2004 in the Laser, including Greece as the host nation. There are a further eight available at this World Championship, which will bring the total number of sailors in the event in August up to 40 - the largest fleet present.
Currently qualified nations are as follows:
The eight qualification places could come from any one of the 27 unqualified nations at the World Championship. Of the unqualified nations, Ireland are topping the bill as far as their positions in the ISAF World Sailing Rankings is concerned. Rory FITZPATRICK
is currently 42 in the rankings, with his fellow countrymen close behind. Kevin LIM (MAS) follows Fitzpatrick in 58 position. Lim is part funded by the IOC Olympic Solidarity Scholarship initiative and will be fighting hard for one of the remaining eight places for the Olympic Games.
For some though, Olympic qualification is not on their mind, either they have already got their sites firmly set on Athens, or they are using the World Championships to gain experience in big fleet racing.
Robert SCHEIDT (BRA), is back at the top of the ISAF World Sailing Rankings and at the World Championship to try and wrestle the title back from Gustavo LIMA, to claim a record seventh World Championship win in the class, but these are not the only two who could top the leader-board at the end of the final series of racing next week. Paul GOODISON
(GBR), with his return to form will be looking to hit the favourites hard, as will Roope SUOMALAINEN
(FIN), a veteran in the class and currently ranked 12 in the ISAF World Sailing Rankings.
Challenges to Lima's superiority could also come in the form of Michael BLACKBURN
(AUS), recent Laser Radial World Champion, ranked second in the ISAF World Sailing Rankings and bronze medallist at the 2000 Olympic Games. Phillippe BERGMANS
(BEL), fifth at the recently held Semaine Olympique Francaise, could also make an appearance at the top, as he has been a consistent performer.
Two out of the three medallists at last year's ISAF Youth Sailing World Championships have also made the trip to Turkey to try their hand in the senior fleet. Ricky IRONMONGER
(AUS), part of the record-breaking Nations Cup Trophy winning team, and Bronze medallist Tonci STIPANOVIC (CRO), are in at the deep end. These two appear on the ISAF World Sailing Rankings at 66 and 235 respectively.
Another name on the entry list is that of the WSSRC performance certificate holder for the circumnavigation of Bahrain, Sami AL KOOHEJI
(BRN), a different kind of racing in store for him over the next few days.
Racing gets underway with qualification races between 13 and 16 may and the final series of races from 17-19 May when the World Champion and the final Olympic Qualification places for 2004 will be decided in Turkey.