Andy Rice reports on a fast and furious day of racing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic regatta in Enoshima, Japan that saw thrilling medal races in four classes – 49erFX, 49er, Finn, Nacra 17.
It was a sensational day of racing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Sailing Competition on the day that IOC President Thomas Bach experienced the sport for himself.
Brazil repeated Rio gold in the Women’s Skiff – 49erFX, Italy claimed Mixed Multihull – Nacra 17 gold, and Great Britain won gold medals in the Men’s Skiff – 49er and Men’s Heavyweight One Person Dinghy – Finn by the skinniest of margins.
Australia has also all but secured gold in the 470 Men a day before the Medal Race.
Women’s Skiff – 49erFX
Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze (BRA) have won gold in the 49erFX with Tina Lutz and Susann Beucke (GER) taking silver and Annemiek Bekkering and Annette Duetz (NED) bronze.
Going into the 49erFX Medal Race two high-class teams shared top spot on equal points – the Dutch double World Champions up against the Brazilians looking to defend their Olympic title from five years ago. Only three points off the lead were Tina Lutz and Susann Beucke (GER).
Brazil were struggling for a lane out of the start but found a gap at the committee boat in the last 10 seconds and tacked out to the right on a lonely path while the other nine boats carried on towards the left.
First around the first mark was Argentina, Norway in second with Brazil in third and the Netherlands in fifth – advantage Brazil.
On the first downwind leg, the Netherlands were fighting with Germany and Spain for the silver and bronze but Bekkering and Duetz got stuck on the outside of a slow mark rounding at the leeward gate, held up by the French team. The Dutch were now at the back, in 10th and out of the medals.
However, up the final windward leg the Dutch pulled back two critical places, enough to get them ahead of Tamara Echegoyen and Paula Barcelo (ESP) for the bronze medal.
Victoria Travasco and Maria Sol (ARG) won the Medal Race by a long distance from Norway. But a third across the finish was sufficient for Brazil to win the gold medal. Grael and Kunze have successfully defended the Olympic title they won at Rio 2016.
Grael was ecstatic to have survived the regatta and emerged with what seemed like an unlikely gold a few days earlier. “Lots of downs and now we have a really good up,” she commented. “This week was a very big challenge to come all the way from behind and little by little go up in the fleet, even having some other results, some not so good. It was really tough – every single point.”
Men’s Skiff – 49er
Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell (GBR) won gold in the 49er with Pete Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL) taking silver and Erik Heil and Thomas Ploessel (GER) bronze.
New Zealand wanted the right-hand side of the course and started on port tack off the committee boat end, closely followed by the Spanish. Great Britain started off the left-hand of the line going left with the rest of the fleet.
Near the top of the first leg, there was a close cross between Fletcher and Bithell versus Burling and Tuke, and it was advantage Great Britain.
The British rounded mark one in the lead, ahead of Germany and then New Zealand. Now the points were even between the Brits and Kiwis. At the bottom mark Germany went around the right hand mark, Great Britain around the left, closely followed by New Zealand.
Up the next windward leg, the Brits and Kiwis locked horns again, Fletcher and Bithell tacking on top of Burling and Tuke and forcing the Kiwis away to the right again. Meanwhile Heil and Ploessel had got into the lead, getting close to the podium depending on how Diego Botin and Iago Marra (ESP) were doing further back in the pack.
Around the final windward mark, Germany rounded narrowly ahead of Great Britain, New Zealand in third. As things stood, the Kiwis would win by two points. Germany gybed away half way down the course, Great Britain continued, holding out for better breeze on their side of the course.
In a photo finish Great Britain crossed the finish in first place, centimetres ahead of the fast-closing Germans. New Zealand crossed the line third so gold went to Fletcher and Bithell (main image above).
Burling and Tuke become the first sailors ever to have won Olympic medals and the America’s Cup in the same year. An added bonus for Fletcher and Bithell was to have won gold ahead of a team widely considered the best of their generation. “Pete and Blair are maybe the best team in the world, it has been great to race them and win here,” said Bithell, a 470 silver medallist from London 2012.
Fletcher was delighted that IOC president Thomas Bach had visited the sailing venue on such a dramatic day, “I think it was really good sailing today. It showcased what’s great about our sport. I hope everyone back home enjoyed it. All the way round the course I was telling the boat, come on girl, you can do it.” The boat is called Kate, by the way, named after the Duchess of Cambridge.
Men’s Heavyweight One Person Dinghy – Finn
Giles Scott (GBR) won gold in the Finn with Zsombor Berecz (HUN) taking silver and Joan Cardona (ESP) bronze.
Scott thought he had crossed the start line too early and returned to restart, while Berecz and Cardona moved into gold and silver medal positions.
Australia round the first mark in the lead followed by Hungary. Sweden was round in third while Scott had worked his way up to fourth, back into gold medal position, still by the narrowest of points.
For the next two laps the balance of power swung this way and that, no medal ever certain. On the final downwind leg Nicholas Heiner (NED) broke into the lead past Hungary. The pack was reshuffling by the second.
When Berecz pulled back into the lead for the final leg towards the finish, he crossed the line in first and was in gold medal position. Somehow Scott managed to haul himself past Turkey and Spain in the dying moments of the race to claim gold by two seconds.
Berecz’s silver is the highest position ever achieved in an Olympic Sailing Competition by a Hungarian sailor, beating the bronze won by the Detre brothers in the Flying Dutchman class at the 1980 Games.
Scott has successfully defended his Olympic title from Rio 2016, maintaining an unbroken streak of Finn gold medals for Great Britain going back to Sydney 2000.
“The emotions of today couldn’t be more different from Rio five years ago,” expressed Scott. “Then I could have a nice meal the night before and just enjoy sailing around the course. Today was the polar opposite. I think I’ve aged a bit after that race.”
The moment Scott turned back to restart the race was the moment when he gave himself a mountain to climb. He would find out later that he had been all clear after all, and never needed to go back. “I went back to restart because I thought I might be over the line too early and I wasn’t sure. It was the one thing I told myself I couldn’t afford to do, but somehow that’s what I end up doing. But I think that’s what the occasion that does to you. I couldn’t be happier now to have come through with the gold.”
Mixed Multihull – Nacra 17
Ruggero Tita and Caterina Banti (ITA) have won gold in the Nacra 17 Mixed Multihull event, with John Gimson and Anna Burnet (GBR) taking silver and Paul Kohlhoff and Alica Stuhlemmer (GER) bronze.
Poor positioning on the start line saw Italy and Great Britain starting in bad air, forcing both to tack early on to port. Meanwhile Germany was given a penalty turn by the on-water umpires for failing to keep clear of Australia who went on the attack, lining up close to leeward of the Germans. The battle for bronze had begun. First blood to the Boxing Kangaroo.
With both contenders for gold back in the fleet, the first cross went Italy’s way, Tita and Banti comfortably crossing Gimson and Burnet in seventh and eighth place respectively.
Great Britain got ahead of Italy during a match race near the back of the fleet, but all the while knowing that they’d need to get a good few boats between them to overturn the Italian points advantage.
Leading around the top mark were the outgoing Olympic Champions from Argentina, Santiago Lange and Cecilia Carranza Saroli (ARG) who were not in contention for the medals this time.
Around in sixth place were the Rio silver medallists Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin (AUS) and, with the Germans fighting to recover from the effects of that start line penalty back in 10th place, the Aussies were up into bronze medal position.
On the downwind Italy passed Great Britain and moved ahead, making the gold medal even more secure for Tita and Banti. Towards the top of the final windward leg Germany overtook Brazil, a critical move that put them back into bronze if things could just stay that way.
Crossing the line to finish the Medal Race were Lange and Saroli, a great way for this popular team to round off their campaign. Great Britain crossed in fifth, a place in front of the Italians who started celebrating the gold. Silver for Great Britain, bronze for Germany, with Denmark just edging out Australia for fourth place overall.
Burnet paid tribute to her helmsman Gimson. “No one deserves this more than John, he’s been working so hard for this for so many years.”
Gimson said, “So many times I’ve thought about giving up, it’s been a long road, but today it all feels worth it.”
Men’s Two Person Dinghy – 470
Mat Belcher and Will Ryan (AUS) have all but secured the gold medal for Australia after completing the Opening Series of the 470 Men with a 20-point advantage over their closest rivals. Reigning World Champions Anton Dahlberg and Fredrik Bergstrom (SWE) sailed an impressive final two races of the series, a third and first place launching the Swedes into second place overall. They’re now four points ahead of Jordi Xammar and Nico Rodriguez (ESP) in third.
“It’s been a five year journey and we’re just having a good time and sailing really well and having a few laughs,” smiled Belcher.
“I think that’s probably helped us a lot. We obviously enjoy our friendship and partnership and our teamwork. Today we said before heading out on the water that this is probably going to be our second last time racing together. For the Medal Race, we’re going to race it properly.”
Women’s Two Person Dinghy – 470
None of the frontrunners had a stellar day in their final two races of the 470 Women’s Opening Series. However, Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre (GBR) have extended their overall lead to 14 points in front of the second placed team.
Agnieszka Skrzypulec and Jolanta Ogar (POL) really struggled on the water, with two 15th places dropping them back to third. So closest rivals to the British for the Medal Race will be France’s Camille Lecointre and Aloise Retornaz (FRA) who hold second place, four points ahead of the Polish team.
On Wednesday 4 August, the final two Medal Races for Tokyo 2020 are scheduled: the Men’s and Women’s 470.
Main image © Sailing Energy/World Sailing