Giles Scott is one of British sailing’s biggest talents and was a break-out star of the 36th America’s Cup, but can he defend Olympic Gold? Helen Fretter finds out
Giles Scott is waiting. Like all of this year’s Olympic cohort, he is in a strange pre-Games limbo. Normally at this point in an Olympic cycle only the most finicky of final details would still be being ironed out, the big picture stuff, like travelling dates and training schedules, having long been bolted into the calendar.
This year everything is different. The sailors might reasonably have expected to be in Japan by early summer, acclimatising to the humidity, analysing weather patterns, tuning out distractions. But when I speak to Scott, he’s home on the south coast of England.
The GBR sailing team won’t fly out to Japan until early July, with training time at Enoshima limited to just a couple of weeks. The news is reporting that Japanese public opinion has swayed against the Games taking place; the idea of competing at ‘Tokyo 2021’ seems almost as ephemeral as Tokyo 2020.
Scott, 33, has not spent all year in stand-by mode. While for many of his teammates the postponement left diaries peppered with yawning gaps, question marks where once there was the rigidity of a four-year cycle, Scott faced the opposite problem.
Representing his country in the two biggest sailing events any inshore sailor could aim for – the Olympic sailing and the America’s Cup – within six months of each other created a monumental diary clash.
In Auckland with INEOS Team UK from October until March, he bounced back into the Finn in time for the Europeans in Vilamoura, Portugal, in April. Despite limited time in the boat, he finished 2nd.
A few weeks later Scott was back for the Finn Gold Cup, the class world championships, which he has won four times before (an achievement topped only by his predecessor, and now Cup team boss, Ben Ainslie, who won six). He finished 9th, in a tricky event that saw the fleet held ashore for two days, light winds and a sea state that managed to combine a rolling Atlantic swell with chaotic chop.
Scott, however, is not into making excuses: “It wasn’t great. Not the way I wanted to do my last Gold Cup, I have to say. But it was actually an interesting week to race in, real tricky conditions with wind and sea state, and it might actually provide us with some valuable lessons for Tokyo.”
This year’s Gold Cup was won by New Zealander Andy Maloney, also fresh from the America’s Cup. His team mate Josh Junior was 3rd, setting up a battle royal for the single New Zealand Finn Olympic berth.
It’s a scenario Scott will understand well. In 2011, aged just 23, Scott’s name came to the fore when he looked like becoming a serious obstacle to Ainslie’s route to the Games and chances of a record fifth medal.
Scott won the Finn Europeans and Gold Cup in that year, but Ainslie won the British team trials, and went on to deliver one of the most thrilling medal battles of 2012.
In truth, Scott’s talent had been evident from much earlier on. He and his brothers were introduced to sailing at Grafham Water, bobbing around the reservoir in Optimists on a long shore tether at the age of six.
Initially, Scott was unexcited at the prospect of racing. But having grown out of the Optimist and into the Topper, by his early teens Scott had caught the competitive bug, winning the Topper nationals in 2001.
He progressed into the RYA national squad, moving up through the Laser Radial into the Laser, where he won the ISAF Youth Worlds in 2005. At 18 he headed off to Southampton University, putting sailing firmly on the back burner, but still scored a top 10 in the senior Laser World Championship fleet the following year.
By then standing at 6ft 6in, the Finn was the next step. Within two years he was appearing on the podium at Olympic class events. In almost any other scenario he would have been headed straight for London 2012, but Scott had set himself the impossible task of trying to stop the most successful Olympic sailor of all time from going to the Games thanks to the ‘one nation, one boat’ rules.
After 2012 he briefly joined Team Korea and then Luna Rossa for the 34th America’s Cup. But with Ainslie retired from Olympic sailing, Scott’s route to the 2016 Games was clear.
Giles Scott and his coach Matt Howard planned a ‘flat out’ campaign for Rio, leaving no stone unturned, no regatta mentally discarded. It was a gruelling but rewarding programme, with Giles Scott going into 2016 as near-undefeated favourite.
Things were always going to be very different for 2020. Before Rio, Scott had joined Ainslie’s first British Cup challenge (Land Rover BAR). But after Bermuda in 2017 Scott re-signed with INEOS Team UK in a much more senior managerial role, as well as tactician.
“This cycle was very different to the Rio one,” recalls Giles Scott’s coach Matt Howard. “Going into Rio he was a full-time Finn sailor who did some America’s Cup tactics, and this time he’s been a full-time America’s Cup sailor who does some Finn sailing.”
“He asked me ‘What do you think? Have I got a shot?’ and I said you do, but it’s going to be really, really hard.”
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As Howard points out, even legends of the sport like Torben Grael and Robert Scheidt, multiple Gold medallists, did not win back-to-back Games. The Finn class may have seen multiple wins by Elvstrøm and Ainslie, but defending a single Gold is a rare and remarkable feat.
All of which would have been fine, if challenging, had things had gone ahead as scheduled. But once the Tokyo Games were postponed, Scott’s final Olympic training schedule would be compressed to just months.
Despite this, Scott never really considered not going for Tokyo: “I think I did, but very, very briefly. Then it quickly shifted into the ‘Well, this is the new world we live in,’ and you just have to get on with it.
“We’re so used to being able to work out where we’re going, what events we’re going to be doing, almost four years into the future. Whereas that just got torn up and everyone’s had to work off weeks as opposed to years.”
No pause for Giles Scott
When Giles Scott headed out to Auckland last autumn for the 36th America’s Cup, he optimistically packed two Finn dinghies into the team containers in the hope there might be some practice time in between racing.
As anyone who followed the Cup knows, things didn’t pan out quite as expected for the Brits, with the entire squad putting in a Herculean effort to get their AC75 up to speed. There was no downtime. “We probably only used the Finns on a couple of days,” recalls Scott.
Auckland did, however, put Giles Scott’s name back in the headlines. While Luna Rossa’s dual-nationality split-helm set up between Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni initially seemed stilted, the easy patter between Scott as tactician and helmsman Ben Ainslie on the back of Britannia was clear from the outset.
The watching press seized on the dynamic: the one-time fierce rivals now working in perfect partnership.
Both sailors shrugged it off. “I think we are both just finding it hilarious how everyone’s talking up our bromance,” Ben Ainslie commented in a Sky Sports interview with his wife Georgie during the event.
It’s easy to draw parallels between the two sailors – both are products of the RYA’s enormously successful development programme, and progressed through the same classes. For years they trained as part of the GBR Finn squad, going to the same events, working on the same drills. It’s unsurprising their approach is similar.
Both are driven, professional, and naturally inclined to give little away. Although interestingly, both have revealed that they didn’t always feel comfortable among their peers in their youth – Ainslie has talked about suffering bullying at school, while Scott says that sailing as a teenager gave him a sense of belonging.
“In the squads, I felt as if I fitted in. I wasn’t into the ‘cool’ things, like football. I found like-minded kids at all these sailing events,” he recalled in an interview for INEOS.
Whilst Ainslie has famously allowed the red mist to descend at times, Scott is known for being able to hold his own against Ainslie’s aggression. There is clearly a deep mutual respect between the two.
“Certainly when we’re racing, we think very similarly. I think that’s been quite powerful in terms of being able to quickly bridge gaps on the water,” Scott says. “When you look back to the last Cup, we didn’t have much time to nail down exactly how we’re going to race the boat. So being able to communicate and have a similar kind of philosophy with the way Ben and I sail together is quite a help. But that being said, we’re not the same people!”
Asked how he personally developed over the 36th Cup cycle, and Scott is modestly stumped. “Wow, I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it. Though I certainly felt like my knowledge and understanding is a much higher level now than it was four years ago.”
As a smart, analytical sailor, Scott is clearly a lynchpin member of the INEOS team. “It’s quite an interesting dynamic, because you have you have these designers that are incredibly academically intelligent. A lot of them are also very good sailors. But the role of the sailors is really to make sure that the information, and the direction the designers are taking, is right and realistic.
“You need a cohesive sailing team, you need a cohesive design team, but you need to be able to merge the two. And you need to speak a common language,” he reflects.
After INEOS Team UK was eliminated from the America’s Cup many of Scott’s team mates made the most of being in covid-free New Zealand, road tripping around the islands after a gruelling Cup cycle. Not so Scott. “I took five days off and went up to the Coromandel in a truck with a tent on top. That was about it,” he recalls.
Once back in the UK, Scott threw himself into a compressed Olympic build-up. “The biggest challenge with Giles coming back was that he needed to fit 12 months sailing into three months,” explains Howard. “You’ve got to get the volume in there, the hours on the water, but you have to be very careful that you don’t overdo it and go a bit stale.”
The task is one to which Scott seems temperamentally suited. “He’s very, very focussed. And by that I mean there’s not much fluff in the programme, he doesn’t really tolerate any kind of wishy-washy bits. It’s all about what’s the biggest bang for your buck and knowing what’s important,” says Howard.
“It’s quite refreshing to be able to do two very intense things and still feel reasonably fresh in both of them because the other is so different,” says Giles Scott. “So it’s not too Groundhog Day-like. I’ve been sailing Finns for 13 years now, and I think if I was doing nothing but going Finn sailing all the time it wouldn’t be healthy, and it wouldn’t be conducive to a good performance.”
If the Games go ahead – and Scott is simply assuming that they will – the Olympics in 2021 will be a strange experience with no crowd buzz, no five-ring razzmatazz.
Howard is running through scenarios of how sailors might travel to the venue or rig up in the dinghy park if they are awaiting covid test results. Scott, he expects, won’t be remotely rattled by the whole thing.
“I don’t think it phases him at all. He seems so workmanlike and clinical about it all, he’s just head down. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even notice until after the event and he’ll go ‘Right, where’s the party?’”
This will, almost certainly, be the final Olympic Finn event. Scott says even if the Finn did come back for 2024, he wouldn’t be campaigning.
Now among the most respected sailors of his generation, he has other ambitions in mind. He has dabbled in some MOD70 offshore racing, and is intrigued by The Ocean Race, while the America’s Cup remains unfinished business.
But, right now, Scott is as singleminded going into this Games as the last. “The pressure is certainly a little bit more focussed internally. It is very similar to what I felt through Rio when I was the favourite. Then, if you’d asked a reporter who was going to win, they’d probably say me. [But] the pressure I put myself under was way more than anything that any pundit could put on me. And that pressure is still there.
“I still want to go to the Games and I want to win. The goal remains the same.”
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