For World Sailing, Andy Rice previews the potential frontrunners in the Men’s 470 class at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic regatta in Enoshima, Japan.
For most of the past five years since Rio, the fight for 470 supremacy has swung back and forth between three men’s teams – the Swedes, the Spanish and the Australians.
In recent times, however, things have got more complicated. There are many pretenders to the crown vacated by Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic (CRO) who retired their successful partnership after becoming Croatia’s first ever Olympic Champions in a sailing event at Rio.
Finishing with a silver medal were Australia’s Mat Belcher and Will Ryan. Belcher had already won Olympic gold with former crew Malcolm Page at London 2012, and was probably a little disappointed not to repeat perfection in Rio. However, even at the age of 38 and working with his coach, the ‘Medal Maker’ Victor Kovalenko, for the best part of two decades, Belcher’s passion for perfection remains as high as ever. He is the most successful 470 sailor of all time, with eight world titles, winning five of those with Ryan.
Belcher has not had the build-up to Tokyo that he would have liked, but then, who has? “In any Games environment you have to be extremely good,” he says, “but this COVID situation takes it to a new level in terms of being flexible and organised. The racing will be out of the window in terms of being a normal build-up. We’re going to have to be ready to adapt and this situation has taught me to adapt and just run with it.”
Training time for the sailors on the Olympic waters has been very limited, almost zero, over the past two years, but if any of the teams is to take the confidence of past glories into the Games, it’s the Aussies. Belcher and Ryan pulled off an incredible hat-trick of consecutive Enoshima victories in summer 2019. It started with winning the World Championship, followed two weeks later by the READY STEADY TOKYO – Sailing, Olympic test event, and culminated in a third gold at the Hempel World Cup Series Enoshima.
Over the past few years, a relaxation of the rules governing kinetics has led to huge changes in 470 technique. Whereas crews used to stand relatively static on the trapeze, these days they grab the trapeze handle, unhook from the wire, and vigorously pump the rig to generate additional airflow across the sails. It’s tough on the aluminium masts, even tougher on the crews.
In the past the crews tended to do the looking around and making the tactical decisions upwind; now they’re too busy red-lining their heart rate trying to out-pump their rivals. Clear thinking while you’re bumping up to your cardiovascular threshold is almost impossible, which means the primary decision-making falls back to the helms.
Downwind the workload has also heated up massively, thanks mainly to Jordi Xammar and Nico Rodriguez who pioneered a new combination of rocking and pumping down the waves. In the huge swell of Enoshima, the Spanish technique could prove a critical success factor, although unfortunately for the likable, ever-grinning Spaniards, the year-long delay in competition has enabled much of the fleet to close the gap in technique.
Watching YouTube videos of the Spanish sailing downwind has been vital and necessary homework during lockdown. Xammar and Rodriguez have enjoyed a stellar few years, notching up scores of 3,2,3 in the last three World Championships and a string of victories at the warm-up international events in Portugal and Lanzarote at the start of the year. The big waves of Enoshima should play right to the strengths of the energetic Spanish team.
Meanwhile, professional sailor Phil Robertson of New Zealand has been keeping the seat warm for Xammar on the Spain SailGP Team, with the Spanish sailor ready to step on board for the remainder of this season’s circuit. A medal from Tokyo would be a great way to launch the 27-year-old Xammar’s career on the grand prix circuit where he’ll be pitted against Olympic Champions such as Tom Slingsby, Nathan Outteridge and Sir Ben Ainslie.
Sweden has never won an Olympic medal in the Men’s 470, so there is a lot of expectation on the shoulders of reigning World Champions Anton Dahlberg and Fredrik Bergström. Having come so close to winning the Worlds over previous seasons, with scores of 2,4,3, the Swedes have finally come good with an important championship victory to carry into Tokyo. Now aged 36, Dahlberg has more than served his apprenticeship in Olympic competition.
A 15th place at Beijing 2008, 10th at London 2012, and then sixth at Rio 2016 after teaming up with Bergström, now 31. Dahlberg has aged like a fine wine and Tokyo seems like the right time to pop the cork. In fact, if not now, then when? Because this is the last time we’ll see single-sex teams competing in the 470 class before it goes to mixed gender for Paris 2024.
Having spent 18 months away from international competition, New Zealand’s Paul Snow Hansen and Dan Willcox flew to Europe earlier this season not really knowing where they’d slot into the fleet. It turns out their training back home has been right on the money.
Sailing a charter boat with a few teething problems, the Kiwis nevertheless won the European Championship, putting down an important marker for Tokyo. Willcox’s father Hamish won three 470 world titles back in the 1980s but never got the chance to represent his country at the Olympics, so Dan is looking to win that missing medal for his family.
There’s another family connection with the 470 class in the French crew. Thierry Peponnet won 470 gold at the 1988 Games in Korea, and now his nephew Kevin Peponnet aims to maintain the family tradition alongside his crew Jeremie Mion, who finished seventh in Rio sailing with another helmsman. As 2018 World Champions and runners-up at this year’s European Championship, the French certainly have the pedigree to make the podium.
Luke Patience is back for his third Games. It’s been a career of ups and downs for the charismatic Scotsman racing for Great Britain. A silver medal with Stu Bithell at London 2012, then a Rio 2016 campaign derailed by his crew Elliot Willis getting laid low by cancer, from which he has since recovered. Patience was thrown together with his good friend and past crew Chris ’Twiggy’ Grube for a late run at Rio.
They finished fifth, an incredible result under the circumstances. Twiggy believes it’s not talent but commitment that separates the great from the good, and that’s what drives him to work so hard to achieve the high fitness levels now required to crew the 470. “The longer I am in the sport, the more I realise everyone has the same skills, it’s more about outworking people. It is the amount of effort and energy that you put out that enables you to succeed.”
The Brits have been through a patchy run in the past few years, but if they can turn their bursts of world-beating speed into a more consistent performance then they’ll be in the hunt for a medal.
Another team with previous experience of the Olympic podium are the Greeks who won bronze in Rio 2016, Panagiotis Mantis and Pavlos Kagialis. With a fourth place in the 2019 Worlds and sixth at this year’s Worlds, the Greeks could yet repeat or better the bronze from Rio.
Taking a lot of older and more experienced teams by surprise recently were the Portuguese brothers Diego and Pedro Costa who finished second at this year’s Worlds. This is a team that has certainly benefited from the year’s delay to the Games.
Finishing in 11th at the same Worlds was disappointing for Japan’s representatives Keiju Okada and Jumpei Hokazono, but three years ago they won gold at the World Cup Series Enoshima, the first major event on Olympic waters. Their extensive experience of the home venue will be an important advantage to carry into the Games, in an event where Japan has great expectations of home glory in both the Men’s and Women’s 470 divisions.
Stu McNay will turn 40 during the Olympic competition, which will be the American’s fourth time at the Games. McNay and his crew Dave Hughes finished fourth at Rio 2016, while also racing at Beijing in 2008 (13th place) and at the London 2012 (14th) Games. A fifth place at this year’s Worlds makes the team an outside bet for a medal for the USA.
It’s easy to forget that 25 years ago Australia refused to send 470 sailors to the 1996 Games because they just weren’t good enough. Since the arrival of coach Victor Kovalenko from the Ukraine, Australia has set the pace in 470 performance. Ryan concluded, “Victor drives our campaign to keep our focus on nothing other than the top step. We’re as motivated as ever and we still believe we have the tools. It’s up to us to try and make it happen.”
The Men’s 470 fleet will be comprised of 19 teams. They will sail ten Opening Series races ahead of their Medal Race. The first starting gun will sound on Wednesday 28 July at 12:00 JST on the Enoshima racing area. The fleet will conclude racing on the same course at 14:30 on Wednesday 4 August.
Main image © Sailing Energy/World Sailing