Viva Espana!

 A royal reception awaited the new 49er Olympic Champions as Iker Martinez and Xabier Fernandez stepped ashore after the last race of the regatta yestrday. Her Majesty Queen Sofia congratulated Spain’s Gold medallists with a kiss and a few words of gratitude on behalf of a proud nation.

The 49er regatta rounded off with a light-wind race of single-wiring, ideal conditions for taking the fight to Spain. Indeed, the Ukraine team looked close to threatening the Spanish points lead as they moved into the lead of the race at the midway point. The Spanish had started near Rodion Luka and George Leonchuk at the port end, but unusually were a little slow, and forced to find a clear lane elsewhere. With a first mark rounding position of 12th and the Ukraine at this stage in 3rd, Spanish hearts must have been racing.

Meanwhile, the British team had started at the committee boat end and gone right up the first beat, rounding in 6th and behind Luka and Leonchuk. The Bronze medal looked set to be theirs, hopes of improving the colour beginning to flicker and fade. The Spanish started moving forward through the fleet and beginning to make the Gold safe once again. By the finish Martinez and Fernandez had moved into 7th, a place behind Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks, and only three places behind the Ukrainians.

Now the reigning world champions have the one that they really wanted, but which at times in the past year has looked far from their grasp. Injury forced them out of most of the 2003 season, and a broken finger prevented Martinez from completing the European championship as recently as a month and a half ago.

Despite their injury problems, the Gold was always expected to go either to the Spanish or the British, but at times in this regatta the outcome looked far from certain. It really did take all 16 races in these fluky conditions to establish a clear pecking order. Simon Hiscocks admitted to being disappointed at not having snatched Silver from the Ukrainians, but he was also realistic enough to realise that coming away with any medal from this regatta was a great achievement.

Luka and Leonchuk were over the moon with their Silver medal, a welcome turnaround from a lacklustre season, and vindication of this team’s hard work over the past eight seasons. Others will be left to rue their mistakes. Chris Nicholson and Gary Boyd won four races, twice as many as any other team, but the Australians picked up a lot of penalty turns along the way.

Ian Barker has been coaching the Irish team this week, and the Silver medallist from Sydney said the big lesson he drew from observing the regatta was also the oldest lesson – consistency. “Write down all the mistakes that you can make during a race, and then make sure you avoid them all,” he said, laughing. “Whenever someone has taken a penalty they’ve lost six or even 10 boats. When you duck a boat, you lose one.”

It has proved to be a high-scoring regatta with the Olympic Champions scoring an average of 4.79 across the 14 races they counted in their final tally. So if you could just finish in the top quarter of the fleet each heat, that would be enough to secure victory. The Ukrainians secured their Silver without even winning a race.