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19 April 2008, 09:48 am
SOF - World sailing elite to celebrate 40th anniversary!
The Alonsos
The Alonsos in Action at the 49er Europeans

Semaine Olympique Française 2008
Hyères, France

The 40th Semaine Olympique Francaise gets underway today with the world sailing elite hitting the water for a warm up race in Hyères. With a total of 920 boats from 58 countries on the starting line, it will be close to a record participation for an Olympic year.
The first Grade 1 sailing event in the European calendar will see some intense racing in ten of the Olympic equipment classes classes and two Paralympics events, during a six day regatta using the Olympic format. With both windy and light conditions usually on the menu, the conditions and schedule will be a good performance test four months away from the Olympic regatta. Last years winners are back to defend their title in eight classes, but the tension will be present at different levels, while some teams are still vying for Olympic selection.

The 40th SOF title will prove hard to take in the Yngling class. Despite a 22 boats fleet, the world's best will make for an interesting battle and will give a preview of the Olympic Games with only one boat per country on the starting line with the exception of the Russian, Dutch and French teams. Interestingly, the French finished their selection prematurely before Hyères. The SOF is part of the Olympic qualification for the three "rotating" Dutch teams and the last selection regatta for the Russians. The Russian Ekaterina SKUDINA's trio will have the double task of defending their title, but especially to try and win their Olympic selection.

Strong from their victory at home at the recent European championship, Iker MARTINEZ DE LIZARDUY and XABIER FERNANDEZ (ESP) will start the 40th SOF as hot favourites. The 2004 Gold medallists, who finished second last year in Hyères will face strong competition to climb one step higher on the podium. Their compatriots and European silver medallists Alonso and Nestor Alonso (ESP), the SIBELLO'S (ITA) and PECKOLT' (GER) brothers or the Ukrainian Rodion LUKA and George LEONCHUK will be in contention.

In the Men 470 class, the French teams of Pierre LEBOUCHER and Vincent GAROS and Nicolas CHARBONNIER and Olivier BAUSSET (selected for China), first and second in last year's SOF will meet the top international teams in an 81 boats fleet racing in groups. 2008 World Champions Nic ASHER and Elliot WILLIS (GBR) and nathan WILMOT and Malcolm PAGE (AUS), leaders of the ISAF rankings, are among the favourites for the title.

If it wasn't for the absence of current World Champions Erin MAXWELL and Isabelle KINSOLVING (USA), the women 470 fleet would have all the top teams on the starting line. Hard to predict a favourite in such a talented field! The Italians GIULIA CONTI and GIOVANNA MICOL, close to winning the World's are dominating the rankings and will protect their 2007 SOF title. Ingrid PETITJEAN and Nadège DOUROUX (FRA) will not be the only ones to claim home advantage. The 40th SOF will be the 11th time in Hyères for Marcelien DE KONING (NED). Now helming a 470 with Lobke BERKHOUT, DE KONING made her debut in Hyères in the Europe class in 1997.

No show for the Australian's, 2007 SOF champion Michael BLACKBURN and reigning World Champion Tom SLINGSBY, who placed second last year in Hyères, will be absent. The podium is open for Andrew Murdoch (NZL), third last year, Mate ARAPOV (CRO) twice second, Andreas GERITZER (AUT), Michael LEIGH (CAN) or SOF veteran Paul GOODISON (GBR). GOODISON who has climbed to second in the World ranking after a strong start in the 2008 season (he won Palma and Sail Melbourne); is racing the events for the tenth time! His current top form could see a repeat of his 2002 performance when he took Gold in Hyères.

2007 winner in the Laser Radial division, Evi VAN ACKER (BEL) will face a talented fleet that includes 15 of the top 20 sailors and more especially current ISAF ranking leaders Anna TUNNICLIFFE (USA), Jo ALEH (NZL), Sarah BLANCK (AUS) or Lijia XU (CHN). Recently crowned World Champion, Sarah STEYAERT (FRA) will miss the SOF this year to take a rest before preparing fully for the Olympic Games.

It will be the same scenario in the Finn fleet with Charles Benedict AINSLIE (GBR), one of the rare top sailors missing from Hyères. EMILIOS PAPATHANASIOU (GRE) will aim for a fourth title and is again among the favourites along with World #1, Jonas Hoegh-Christensen (DEN), 2006 European Champion Ed WRIGHT (GBR), Pieter-Jan POSTMA (NED) who had claimed the last two races last year in the breeze, or Dan SLATER (NZL) a close second at this year Finn Gold Cup. The list is long as 18 sailors among the top 20 will take the start of the 40th SOF!

It will be also interesting to witness the last stage of the battle for Olympic selection among the Polish sailors.

In the Women RS:X, Athens Gold medallist, Faustine MERRET (FRA) and team mate, Charline PICON (FRA) will be strong prospects along with MANCHON BLANCA (ESP) who has won Silver for the last two years in Hyères. World # 1 and #2 in the men division, Przemyslaw MIARCZYNSKI (POL) and João RODRIGUES (POR), SOF 2005 winner Ivan PASTOR LAFUENTE (ESP) will be among the top ranked windsurfers. casper BOUMAN (NED) will fly if the wind gets up but will have his mind occupied by his Olympic qualification.

The Tornado fleet should insure a great show on the water. The Australians Darren BUNDOCK and Glenn ASHBY are back in Hyères, stronger from another World title and still in command of the ranking list. Olympic medallists Roman HAGARA and Hans Peter STEINACHER (AUT), Mitch BOOTH and Pim NIEUWENHUIS (NED) or world champions Fernando ECHAVARRI and ANTON PAZ (ESP) will also prove hard to beat.

Thierry SCHMITTER (NED) is back to defend his title and will try to make it 3 in a row in the 2.4m class where participation keeps increasing since its inclusion in the SOF programme. There will be 22 boats on the starting line representing 18 countries with newcomers from China, Canada or USA. For its second year in the SOF, the Sonar will be represented with 9 boats from 7 countries.

Semaine Olympique Française Website - http://sof.ffvoile.net

Corinne Rolland-McKenzie
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