On the water Qingdao threw up a mixed bag of very testing conditions. Light conditions prevailed through the first three-quarters of the regatta, with no racing at all on two of the opening five days. With the current adding another element of difficulty to the already tricky conditions, Qingdao proved to be an unforgiving venue. Small errors were heavily punished as the fleets tended to remain closely bunched up.
'In events like this, tiny mistakes can be very costly. We had a few minor mistakes today, and a few tough tacks, which made for big losses,' explained Elise RECHICHI (AUS), helm of Australia's gold medal winning 470 Women's crew, midway through the opening series. 'It's a tough race.'
For the final three day's of the regatta the wind picked up. On Wednesday, in a repeat of last year's test event, the first eight Medal Races were blessed with fantastic conditions. A 15-knot southeasterly breeze and big waves made for a spectacular series of Medal Races. Thursday also proved to be another excellent day for racing, with an easterly of 8-10 knots for the final three Medal Races.
However, more than the light winds, it was the shifty current that often proved the biggest difficulty, especially at the start. Finding the balance between conservatism and aggression was one of the keys to success.
Silja LEHTINEN (FIN), helm of the Finnish Yngling, summed up the problem many of the crews were facing, 'Being from Finland and training in Europe, we're not used to this current and we're being too cautious by starting too far back at the start. Tomorrow, we really need to focus on our starts and improve our performance in that aspect.'
However, it was certainly a very difficult balancing act and in the end there were a multitude of OCS scores across the fleets, most notably by Sally BARKOW, Carrie HOWE and Debbie CAPOZZI (USA), who led going into the Yngling Medal Race only to fall off their podium after going over early.
For the Chinese hosts, the only area of disappointment this year was on the water, where the nation's sailors failed to repeat last year's five-strong medal haul. Even silver medal winner Yuan Guo ZHOU (CHN) was looking downcast after he lost gold to Tom ASHLEY (NZL) in a windy RS:X Men's Medal Race.
Fantastic Medal Races
Whilst the spectators gathered on the breakwater may have been disappointed to see their heroes slip up in the Medal Races, they were treated to some incredibly close finishes as several of the gold medals were decided by a matter of mere seconds. In the 470 Women's Medal Race all three medals were eventually decided as the first five crews hurtled towards the finish line together. Ingird PETITJEAN and Nadege DOUROUX (FRA) took bronze by virtue of crossing the line first, whilst gold went to Elise RECHICHI and Tessa PARKINSON (AUS) who crossed the line 4 seconds ahead of their rivals Ai KONDO and Naoko KAMATA (JPN), but crucially with a boat finishing between them! Paul GOODISON's (GBR) win in the Laser was equally as exciting, or in his own words 'stressful', as he capitalized on a mistake by Bruno FONTES (BRA) at the final mark to make up the one place he needed and win gold in Qingdao for the second year running.
Ben AINSLIE (GBR) initially looked set to repeat his all first and second place scoreline of last year, but although he didn't quite manage to achieve this, his win here in 2007 was perhaps even more impressive and certainly more of a nail-biter. It was also probably a more valuable experience for AINSLIE as well; last year he went into the Medal Race in an unbeatable position, whereas this time round Ivan KLJAKOVIC GASPIC (CRO) was 11 points behind. AINSLIE made a horror start, mistakenly re-crossing the line, so he was well back on the rest of the fleet at the top mark with everything to do. From there he did manage to make up some ground, just enough to put some pressure on KLJAKOVIC GASPIC, who pushed too hard on the final run, capsized, and saw his gold medal hopes vanish.
'This regatta has given me a great boost in confidence,'
said AINSLIE as he made his way to the Medal Ceremony platform. 'I am very happy with my performance this week. I sail very well right now, but still have a great deal of room for improvement.'
For many people, AINSLIE was again the star performer in Qingdao, coming back after 12 months out of the Finn to extend his unbroken run of wins in the class to over two years. Equally impressive though were the quartet of crews who added wins in Qingdao to those in very different conditions at the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Cascais just over a month earlier. Robert SCHEIDT and Bruno PRADA (BRA), Nathan WILMOT and Malcolm PAGE (AUS), Sarah AYTON, Sarah WEBB and Pippa WILSON (GBR) and Stevie MORRISON and Ben RHODES (GBR) all completed 'the double' in the Star, 470 Men, Yngling and 49er respectively.
This year's medal table makes for interesting viewing. Nineteen nations won medals, compared to 14 last year and 17 in Cascais (although in both these regattas more than one entry was allowed per event, per nation) and 20 at the 2004 Olympic Sailing Competition. Nations who won medals this year but missed out in Athens were Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Belgium, Russia and Portugal. Of these it was the Oceanic teams of Australia and New Zealand who proved to be the stars, picking up seven medals between them. The Aussies in particular will be delighted with their performance after missing out on the medals completely in Qingdao last year, especially with two more of their young crews, Tom SLINGSBY (AUS) and Nathan OUTTERIDGE and Ben AUSTIN (AUS), narrowly missing out on medal positions.
This year, more than ever, there was no disputing the British dominance, with five gold medals and a silver putting them well clear at the top of the medal table.
'This regatta has been absolutely amazing. We didn't think we would do this well,' summed up GOODISON after winning the fourth of five gold medals for Great Britain.
Even after topping the medal table at the last two Olympic Games, winning the President of the IOC Cup at the ISAF Worlds and almost exclusively holding the top nation spot in the ISAF World Sailing Rankings for the past two years, five gold medals was still a surprisingly high return for the Brits. They also won four golds in Qingdao last year; so just what makes the Brits so strong here?
Yngling gold medallist Sarah AYTON explained that in such a tough venue - where, as well as the tricky wind and current, the sailors have to contend with a different culture and food, very high heat and humidity - the team behind the scenes can make all the difference.
'We're very lucky as a nation to have a fantastic network of people supporting us and in somewhere like Qingdao, where the conditions are hard, you've really need a good team behind you to make sure you have everything you need. Then when you go out on the water you can be 110% ready to go and win.'
Stephen PARK, Olympic Manager for Skandia Team GBR, also pointed towards what he called, 'lots of little things'. He went on to explain further, 'How the team get on, how we arrange the day for the sailors, the support facilities we try to provide, the venue specific information and preparation. None of them really stand out as being massive, but I think altogether they give you that little bit of an edge that maybe is not so much a technical edge, but gives them [the sailors] that confidence that they've covered all the bases.'
Another feature that PARK pointed to was luck. In four of the five Medal Races where the Brits won gold, things could have turned out very differently. Both MORRISON and RHODES, and AINSLIE benefited from rivals capsizing at key moments, whilst GOODISON won gold by just a few seconds and AYTON and her crew benefited from their American competitors going OCS. However, such a large part of the Olympic Games is all about dealing with pressure and this year in Qingdao the Brits universally came good when it came to the crunch.
There is one common thread that distinguishes the extra-special success of the British team at the two test events from their other performances over the past two years; having Ben AINSLIE in the team. With three Olympic Games and three medals under his belt, including two monumental last-day battles with Robert SCHEIDT, AINSLIE is now the senior member of the team and knows all about performing under pressure. However, in response to being asked about whether AINSLIE's return lifted the performance of a team as a whole, PARK was not so sure. 'If you'd have asked me question four years ago in Athens, I would have almost certainly said yes. Now I don't think so much. Having any of our strong sailors sailing has an impact on the team - success breeds success. Having Ben specifically is perhaps not having such a big impact as it did in the past,' he said.
Now that AINSLIE says he is '100% dedicated to preparing for next year's Olympics' it will be interesting to see if there is any continuation of the Ainslie-effect on the results of the British team in the run up to the 2008 Games. For now though, in the testing and tricky conditions of Qingdao, they have laid down the benchmark for success next year.