Gael Pawson, editor of our UK site, uk.boats.com, brings word on the sailing competition and US team at the 2012 Games...
A shiver ran down my spine. The first race of the London 2012 Olympic Games. We’re in Weymouth, on the Nothe course, which is just off the grassy Nothe Fort viewing area. Golden sandy beaches stretch in one direction, behind us the old naval base in Portland. Helicopters hover overhead, spectator boats swarm in their masses, and the atmosphere is electric… what a way to start the sailing competition!
You see, here in the UK, the only sailor the British non-sailing press has heard of, or has any real interest in, is one Ben Ainslie -- and so the whole nation’s eyes seem to be firmly focused on him. The added attention means this is one of the most closely watched classes of the Games – and it will be all week.
But who dominated the race? Not Big Ben, and not the USA’s hope, 2008 silver medalist Zach Railey, but Denmark’s Jonas Hogh-Christensen, who seems set to defend a Danish compatriot’s title of 'the best Olympic sailor of all time.' This would Paul Elvström, known for decades in sailing circles as The Great Dane.
You see, Ben Ainslie is aiming to add a fourth gold, his fifth Olympic medal in consecutive Games (Ainslie also got silver in Atlanta in 1996). This would better the Elvström's tally of four golds… making Ainslie the 'best of all time.' This story has been widely touted in the British media, and has certainly raised the profile of both Ben Ainslie and sailing in a nation more obsessed with soccer coverage. All good. But it also seems this has fired up Hogh-Christensen, and the Dane was on fire from the start.
The first race saw him winning by a country mile after Ainslie banged the right a little too hard -- perhaps encouraged into the beach by his vocal supporters on the shore? Ainslie caught up downwind, taking back much of the country mile, but couldn’t do better than second -- still a great start.
Race two was almost a repeat, although Ben avoided the corner-banging and the finish was closer. At the finish Ben was remarkably relaxed, considering second doesn’t really come into his vocabulary: "He must have had a hotline to Elvström," he joked to cameras, happy enough with his solid start to the 10-race series.
What of the US hopes? Zach Railey managed only a 10th and a 15th to sit in 15th overall. “We are fine as far as boat speed is concerned,” he said, “But I made an error on the first beat in the second race and was pretty far behind with no real chances to get back to front group.” Railey promised: “We will be ready for tomorrow. There's still a long way to go.”
In the other classes...
After the first Finn race, the women’s match racing took centre stage on the Nothe course; event favourites USA’s Anna Tunnicliffe, Debbie Capozzi, and Molly Vandemoer won one race and lost their second after an unforced error – they hit a mark, allowing the Spanish past – but they gave no real reason to question their favourite status. The match racers more than anyone know there's a long way to go – their competition continues until August 11th! See this YouTube video of Debbie Capozzi discussing the first day of match racing.
In the Stars there was plenty of drama, and USA’s Mark Mendelblatt and Brian Fatih notched up a good fifth in the first race, but a 14th in the second leaves them 10th overall – Brazil and Ireland heading the leaderboard.
For a recap of the US Olympic team's race day, see the team's report for July 29.
As well as continuing action in the Finns, Stars, and Match Racing, Monday also brings us the first racing in the Lasers, Radials, and 49ers. We’ll be focusing on different classes during the week and continue to hunt out the stories behind the headlines.
Editors' Note: Gael will be providing special reports on the US Sailing Team throughout the events in Weymouth.