Sailors can begin to get twitchy as the Olympics approach and start to do things that seem just plain barmy
For most sailors, the Olympics is one shot in a lifetime, a single opportunity for sporting immortality. As Vangelis’s theme for Chariots of Fire starts chiming through their heads, it’s small wonder that some athletes start making decisions a few weeks out from the Games that look brave at best, or just plain barmy.
French 470 sailor Ingrid Petitjean has been a regular medallist in World Championships and other ISAF Grade 1 events in recent years. She goes to Qingdao as one of the medal favourites, or she would if she was going there with her longstanding crew Nadege Douroux. However, with just a couple of months to go, she has taken up instead with a smaller and lighter alternative in the form of Gwendolyn Lemaitre. Now, Lemaitre is no second-rate sailor. She has finished 9th in the World Championships, but she has never medalled in a major event.
So what is Petitjean thinking? Probably that it’s going to be light and fluffy in Qingdao. But to change your crew at such a late stage seems like the first signs of Olympic madness. Certainly other 470 women’s crews are looking at each other in disbelief, thinking that their own medal prospects have improved slightly.
Such bouts of crazed thinking (or inspired thinking, if Petitjean ends up winning) are not uncommon in the weeks leading up to the Games, as sailors search for that magic bullet that could spell the difference between immortality and ignominy. And with the predicted drifting conditions in Qingdao, there’s never been a more tempting venue for placing all your chips on one number of the roulette wheel. As British Yngling coach Paul Brotherton says: “Qingdao is a fantastic venue for going down that route. If I was an outside chance for a medal, I’d turn up with silk sails, a spaghetti mast and a couple of Jack Russells in the boat.”
However, as coach to Sarah Ayton’s World No 1 crew, Brotherton is tasked with making sure his team are ready for any eventuality, including the prospect of there actually being some wind in China. Ayton and her team mates Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson were selected for Great Britain the best part of a year ago – much to Shirley Robertson’s disgust, you may recall.
The Dutch Yngling team, on the other hand, will not be known until exactly one month before the Olympics. For the past three years, the Dutch Sailing Federation has supported nine sailors and rotated them through three boats, trying different combinations of crew in the search for the best trio. Those three sailors will know who they are on 8 July and, while they doubtless will have sailed together before, this will be the first time they will be able to work together in the knowledge that they are going to the Games.
It’s a fascinating experiment and one that the rest of the Olympic sailing world is watching closely. Brotherton remains sceptical. He wonders whether they will have recovered in time from the excitement of being selected to actually focus on the job in hand. “Talking from the point of view of our girls, I’m thrilled they’ve had the time to recover and prepare for the Games. When you get the phone call it’s an enormous relief to know you’re going, but it takes time to recover from that. I’m not sure the Dutch girls will have the time to be able to do that.”