The most extraordinary day in 44 years of sailing Olympics. Matthew Sheahan reports
The relief on the faces of those wearing medals around their necks was only matched by the drop jawed disbelief among the several hundred journalists and photographers who were still trying to put the last 36 hours into perspective.
Sailing journalist Bob Fisher has reported on every Olympic event bar one since 1964.
â??To go from a medal race which was abandoned as the boats drifted down the last leg in no wind, to a demolition derby the following day where boats were capsizing just 200m from gold, makes for the most extraordinary 36 hour period in the Olympics that Iâ??ve seen in 44 years,â? he said. â??And we still donâ??t know who won gold!â?
Today had started with the British Yngling girls who had walloped their opposition on the race course to take a convincing win in a series that had placed them head to head with the Dutch in the medal race. Ayton, Webb and Wilson had triumphed, their road to victory made an impressive story in itself. But the excitement had only just started.
The Finns were due to race shortly afterwards, but as the breeze built and shifted on the leading edge of a front that brought rain in biblical proportions, visibility went down to just a few metres. The race was postponed and the fleet was sent back to shore.
But by mid afternoon the worst of the weather appeared to have swept through and the fleet was sent back out. Less than one hour later, Ben Ainslie had stamped his authority once again and confirmed his third gold medal in a race in which he was never seriously challenged. Behind him in the medal stakes, Zach Railey continued his impressive performance this week and secured silver, while Ainslieâ??s arch rival from 2004, Frenchman Guillaume Florent took bronze.
But while the British media was engaged in a professional scrum at the edge of the dock to record Ainslieâ??s thoughts on a fourth medal and a performance to surpass that of the previous British Olympic sailingâ??s best, that of Rodney Pattison, there was even more drama taking place just a few metres behind him.
The Danish 49er team looked ashen faced as they stood by their wrecked 49er, itâ??s mast broken, rigging and sails strewn over the deck. Warrer and Ibsen had been punching above their weight all week and had driven themselves into a commanding lead for todayâ??s medal race. But just half an hour before the race was due to start they broke their mast while practicing, their Olympic dreams shattered in the cruellest of blows.
But, in a move that no one yet understands, the Croatian team lent the Danish pair their boat, a sportsmanlike gesture thatâ??s difficult to imagine in any other sport. But they still werenâ??t out of the woods.
With just over 5 minutes to the start of the race and a considerable distance to the start area, the Danes launched off the slipway, set the kite and smoked out to the start in a desperate attempt to keep their medal hopes alive.
Miraculously they reached the start line on time and began their gold medal defence in a race that quickly turned into the most spectacular display of capsizes and cartwheels once the fleet tried to head downwind.
By the bottom mark it was the Austrians who were making the best of the conditions in a superb performance that held them in pole position for the next two legs, until that is, they too broke their mast. An act that placed the Australians, Outteridge and Austin, in the lead at the last weather mark of the three lap course, a position that would earn them a gold medal if they could hold their place to the finish.
But, just a few hundred metres from the finish the Australians ended up swimming as they attempted to gybe and were passed by five boats before they managed to cross the line. Yet still the drama wasnâ??t over.
With no idea of their position and way back in the 10 boat fleet, the Danes sailing the Croatian boat were lying in 7th, a position that would secure them gold if they finished. Yet 200m from the line, they too capsized. Eventually they managed to right the boat and cross the finish. Then came the agonising wait, the complete opposite of what was intended by the new format medal race.
A race official aboard the committee boat held a board showing the results of the race, but the sailors were still none the wiser as to who had won the medals ï¿½” Nor was anyone else. After a wait that felt more like hours than the minutes that had actually scrolled past, the Danes were celebrating wildly on the side decks of the borrowed boat. From hero to zero and back again, their determination had seen their shattered dreams restored. Before that is, they were shattered again with the news of a protest against them by the race committee. Borrowing another competitorâ??s boat was believed to be the issue.
A disqualification could mean that Spainâ??s Iker Martinez and Xabier Fernandez, winners of the Medal Race, would take the gold for a second time with Germanyâ??s Jan-Peter Peckolt and Hannes Peckolt taking silver and the Italian Sibello brothers in bronze.
But that would be in conventional circumstances, something the last 36 hours have been anything but.
BRITS IN A NUTSHELL (Overall results so far)
49er 9th Provisional
470 men 4th
470 women 9th
RSX Men 4th
RSX Women 6th
Laser Radial 8th
RACING SCHEDULE ï¿½” Monday 18 August (times are local)
Course A: 1300 hrs ï¿½” 470 menâ??s medal race
Course A: 1300 hrs ï¿½” 470 womenâ??s medal race
Course B: 1100hrs ï¿½” RS:X men and women (3 races each)
Course C: 1100hrs ï¿½” Laser and Laser Radial (3 races each)
Course E: 1100hrs ï¿½” Star and Tornado (3 races each)
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