Whilst the eventual list of gold medallists features a host of Olympic and World Champions and world number ones, Qingdao has also sprung a few surprises, not least the performance of the host nation. Whilst Chinese expectations had been buoyed by Lijia XU's (CHN) recent win at the Laser Radial Worlds, the first ever gold medal for China in an Olympic Class Worlds, nobody could have predicted the hosts to end the regatta with five medals, including a gold for 17 year old Zhennan FANG (CHN) in the Men's RS:X fleet.
Despite the strong performance from the hosts, there was no doubting the top nation in Qingdao. The British leave China with eight medals, four of them gold. 'I'm delighted with the team's performance out here in Qingdao,' said Royal Yachting Association Olympic Manager Stephen PARK. 'Our goal coming out to this Olympic Test Event was to target three medals, so to go home with eight is just fantastic.' He also sounded a cautious note however, adding, 'We're still two years away from the Games itself, and the standard across all the Olympic sailing nations just keeps on improving. There's certainly a long way to go and a lot of work to be done before Beijing.'
From the standout nation in Qingdao, also came the standout sailor. Whilst across the other ten events high scoring was the norm, Olympic Champion Ben AINSLIE (GBR) blazed a trail of bullets through the Finn fleet to record an emphatic victory. America's Cup duty had kept the Sydney and Athens gold medallist away from the Finn circuit for nearly a year, and with just five days training coming into the event AINSLIE said he had approached the regatta with an open mind.
A bullet and a second place on the opening day led one Chinese journalist in the boat park to describe his performance as a 'miracle', and over the course of the next nine days AINSLIE had reporters wading through their whole repertoire of adjectives as he posted another eight bullets and one more second place to win by 28 points.
'It's funny - when you spend a lot of time away from the boat, quite often you come back and you learn something a little bit new,' explained AINSLIE. 'I think maybe when you're sailing all the time you get into kind of a mindset or a way of sailing and it's very hard to change that, and if you take a bit of time away then you have a more open mind I guess.'
AINSLIE's dominance was such that he had victory wrapped up before the Medal Race, a feat only equalled in one other fleet. Paige RAILEY (USA) had a magical start to her senior career in the Laser Radial, but the 19 year old has endured a very difficult couple of months, placing 19 at the light wind Europeans before losing her World title on her home waters after getting three yellow flags.
Reigning in her usual aggressive style, RAILEY took a more conservative approach, taking her time to assess the unfamiliar waters. With the exception of an OCS in race six and the Medal Race, when she was already assured victory, she did not post one double digit score throughout the entire regatta. As the opening series came to a close and RAILEY explained 'I started to feel more in control of the conditions', she upped her game, posting 3,1,2,2 scores in the last four races to build an insurmountable lead over the chasing pack.
The conservative approach RAILEY took was also a model for success elsewhere. The tricky light winds in Qingdao combined with a strong tidal current made for tactical racing where the fleets remained very close and any mistakes were heavily punished.
Ingrid PETITJEAN and Nadege DOUROUX (FRA) were ninth on the run down to the finish in the last race of the Women's 470 opening series before, 100 metres from the line, they made a bad gybe and lost eight places. The mistake proved costly as Therese TORGERSSON and Vendela ZACHRISSON (SWE) posted a bullet in the Medal Race to overcome the reduced points gap to the leaders and take the gold medal.
49er World Champions Chris DRAPER and Simon HISCOCKS (GBR) stuck with a conservative approach right through the regatta, not panicking when the French team ahead of them reeled off a succession of bullets and in the end the strategy paid off. They controlled yesterday's Medal Race to take the gold in a fleet that included all the big names of the skiff fleet.
Flexibility was their solution to the Qingdao puzzle. 'We've got quite good boat speed and we can start quite well, so that means we can get ourselves in the middle of the fleet. Once we see something is looking good we can assess whether it's on the wind shifts or whether it's something on the course that's causing that effect, and make our decision as soon as possible as to whether to go into it or not,' said DRAPER, adding. 'We try not to put ourselves in a position where we've got no options.'
Although the lighter conditions undeniably favoured their slighter frames, and they were sailing on their home waters, the three male Chinese windsurfers completed a remarkable performance. Counting only 15 ISAF Graded events between them they took three of the top four spots in a fleet which included Olympic, World, Youth World and European Champions.
Adding to the roll call of gold medallists were Nick ROGERS and Joe GLANFIELD (GBR) in the 470, who like AINSLIE were seemingly none the worse for almost a year out of the class, world number one Paul GOODISON (GBR) in the Laser, Andrew HORTON and Brad NICHOL (USA) in the Star, Olivier BACKES and Paul Ambroise SEVESTRE (FRA) in the Tornado and Mandy MULDER, Brechtje VAN DERWERF and Janneke HIN (NED) in the Yngling.
What all of these winners had in common was the consistency to keep on posting good scores, and the ability to bounce back from a bad day on the water. In a long regatta sailed in unfamiliar conditions and very high quality fleets, virtually nobody was able to escape a fair share of bad scores. Through the early stages many unfamiliar faces topped the leaderboards as the big names posted high scores early on, but the battle for honours in Qingdao was never going to be a sprint to the finish.
As the week progressed, the big stars gradually came back through the fleets, and by the time Qingdao blew a storm on the final day of the opening series, most of the established stars had secured themselves a place in the all important Medal Races. Of course, with so many big names some of them would have to miss out, and for many Qingdao literally was a test event. Particularly in the more technical classes there were some surprising absences at the top.
World number one crew Gabrio ZANDONA and Andrea TRANI ended the Men's 470 fleet way down in 28th place, but did not seem too worried by their lack of success. 'It's good learning for us coming here. We are here to practice and check everything from the schedule of the race to the venue,' explained ZANDONA. 'We've found many problems during the regatta. We've tried to use different materials from what we used to have, such as different main sails, different jib. We changed a lot. Finally we had a very, very good operation during the regatta. So we are happy.' Confirming his sentiments, ZANDONA and TRANI ended the last race of the regatta in fourth.
For those at the head of the fleets though, there was no hint of the competitive element giving way. 'Every reason I train and all the things I go through... this is what it's for,' commented a delighted RAILEY after wrapping up victory, and it was a sentiment echoed elsewhere.
Away from the race courses, the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Centre was universally praised by all. The redevelopment of the Beihai Dockyard will leave a fantastic sailing legacy in Qingdao, and provide the perfect facilities to host the Olympic Sailing Competition. It certainly left American Star gold medallist HORTON impressed. 'The venue here is unbelievable! The best sailing venue anywhere I have sailed in!'
The reception from the hosts has also been praised by all throughout the regatta. Not only have the organizers been exceptionally friendly, enthusiastic and helpful, but the entire city has clearly supported Olympic sailing. Walking through Qingdao regatta posters and banners abound on the many high rise buildings, and the action on the water has received extensive media coverage through the local and national media, with several leading officials seemingly becoming minor celebrities after a roundabout of television interviews.
Most encouraging of all has been the number of people actually coming to watch the sailing live on the water, with the harbour wall providing a perfect viewing platform for literally thousands of locals to come and take in the action. With the organizers selling tickets for the price of 1RMB (US$1 = approximately 7.95RMB) over 40,000 tickets to the spectators areas have been sold, and during yesterday's Medal Races over 10,000 people visited the viewing platform.
With such a swell of interest already two years' before the Olympic Games begin, it is clear that Qingdao has the potential to host an Olympic Sailing Competition to live long in the memory and provide a lasting legacy.
At the Qingdao International Regatta over the past few days, the city has passed its first Olympic test with flying colours.