There are 417 days to the start of the 2012 Olympic Games. Between now and then, there are two events that have been in marked in the diary in red ink for every ambitious sailor en route to the London Opening Ceremony.
One of them starts in 55 days time, when the Pre-Olympics begins at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition venue. The entry will mirror the Olympic Games, with just one competitor allowed from each nation in each class of boat.
The other event starts today, and it's Skandia Sail for Gold.
Skandia Sail for Gold is the sixth and penultimate event on this year's ISAF Sailing World Cup schedule, reason enough to make it important. But this year, it's also a big deal for a whole set of other reasons and they are all connected to the venue - the 2012 race courses out on Weymouth Bay. The limited entry for the Pre-Olympics means that for many this is the only chance to race for real at the next Games venue this year.
It wouldn't matter much if these were 100m runners, or discus throwers, or even equestrians - but for sailors, understanding the open water race courses with all their nuances of geography and oceanography is of fundamental importance to success.
When registration closed on Sunday afternoon 735 boats and 1,050 individual sailors in 62 nations had arrived to contest the ten Olympic Events and three Paralympic Classes. The entry list includes ten of the 13 gold medallists from the 2008 Games in Beijing. Everyone, but everyone, in Olympic sailing is in Portland this week.
The venue is just one reason for the importance of Skandia Sail for Gold 2011. Victory this week would be an important psychological blow to the competition. Elite sport is largely played out in the minds of the competitors, and putting a marker down now could pay serious dividends in 417 days time.
And then there's the matter of selection, performance out on the Olympic race course will be a crucial indicator in the eyes of those given the task of selecting their teams - but quite how crucial is often shrouded in mystery. Skandia Team GBR are particularly cagey about how much a good Skandia Sail for Gold result would count towards ultimate Olympic selection, releasing only a limited statement to the effect that 'the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) does not put its selection criteria in the public domain as it believes through past experience that its system of selection gives the GBR team a competitive advantage.'
When you've been top nation at the last three Olympics you're entitled to protect your MO, but even the guarded Stephen Park - Skandia Team GBR's manager - has admitted that Skandia Sail for Gold is both part of the 2012 selection trials, and that the top British competitor in each class this week will be the most likely selection for the Pre-Olympics.
The New Zealanders are amongst the other cautious Olympic sailing superpowers, as are their cousins across the Tasman; Yachting Australia takes the rather bald view that, "All events are considered selection, every event is an opportunity to qualify."
The Americans are rather more open, explaining that Skandia Sail for Gold 2011 and the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Perth, Western Australia, in December comprise their selection trials for all classes (bar the Women's Match Racing).
The Irish and Polish also state that Skandia Sail for Gold is part of their selection process, while for others like the Netherlands it depends on the level of competition in that particular class. Where there is more than one Dutch contender, Skandia Sail for Gold is one of several ISAF World Cup events that will be used to score points towards a performance-based selection criteria - not much mystique about that one, then. But whether the criteria are published or shrouded in secrecy, there's no doubt that the word 'selection' will be on everyone's lips, while their eyes will be on the prize - coming back to Weymouth to compete for gold in 55, and then 417 days time.
Course Tracking: Please note on Monday 6 June, tracking will be on the Finn and Star classes. You can follow the tracking on the event website, www.skandiasailforgoldregatta.co.uk
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