It's been brewing all week and has gone right down to the wire. The on-the-water – and sometimes off-the-water – battle between Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) and Ben Ainslie (GBR) will reach its exciting conclusion on Sunday when the Finn class medal race takes place.
The final showdown between Høgh-Christensen, the double world champion at his third Olympics, against Ainslie, the three time Olympic champion and six time Finn world champion, has ignited the worldwide press as they slaver over the prospect of the most momentous dinghy race in history.
There is a lot at stake. If you didn't know by now Ainslie is hunting for his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal to become the most decorated Olympic sailor of all time, surpassing the original Great Dane Paul Elvstrøm's four gold medals between 1948 and 1960. There is also a slight sense that Høgh-Christensen is defending Elvstrøm's record and honour. Both are already all but guaranteed medals – the medal race will decide the colour.
Høgh-Christensen was the early pace setter when the Finn racing started last Sunday, winning the first three races to the backdrop of a shocked British audience concerned that their golden boy perhaps wasn't up to the job. Høgh-Christensen has led the competition from the first mark of the first race and still leads going into the medal race. A lot of questions were asked of Ainslie as to what was going on, but he didn't have the answer in the first half of the week. His answer finally came on both of the two final days of the opening series as he clawed back his points deficit and showed some of his true form to go into the medal race effectively level with the Great Dane Mk 2.
During the half-way stage lay day, something changed in Ainslie. He came back out with gritted teeth, looking determined to stop to the downward spiral. But it still wasn't easy, fighting his way back twice from lowly positions at the top mark. But that is what has made him famous, making incredible comebacks against adversity, and this is what was lacking in the first half of the week.
The best scorer in the second half of the week was in fact Pieter-Jan Postma (NED) with a 2,2,1,2 scoreline, lifting him to the bronze medal position. One of the best sailors in recent years he has never won a major championship but picked up a silver medal at the 2011 world championship and a bronze at the 2011 Olympic Test Event. He is no pushover.
Høgh-Christensen and Postma have also been vilified in the British press after the race eight mark touching incident – the Great Dane has even been marked as Public Enemy No 1 in the UK – but the disagreement appeared to be forgotten on Friday as a cheerier Ainslie moved within the vital two points of Høgh-Christensen, effectively cancelling any points advantage. It has set up a thrilling winner takes all scenario on Sunday, providing they finish within the top seven boats.
What can we expect from the medal race? Some pundits are already looking forward to an Ainslie trademark match race, but realistically this is unlikely to happen as they both need to keep half an eye on Postma.
In fact there will probably be two, or even three, races going on. The first will be between Høgh-Christensen and Ainslie as whoever is in front will no doubt cover the guy behind pretty tightly. Expect to see them start close together but sail their own races until it is under control.
Unless Postma decides to take a risk – and his style is to attack rather than defend – the second race will be for the bronze with him trying to protect his five point lead. On the water this means he needs to be within two places of Jonathan Lobert (FRA) and Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO) and within three places of Vasilij Zbogar (SLO). Realistically Postma could inflict damage on one of his opponents and go for the gold, but to do it to both is a tall order while also protecting his position against three other boats, all eager to fill the gap should he falter.
The third race will be for seventh place, as in the words of Rafa Trujillo (ESP), currently in tenth overall, “No one wants to be last.”
So what are their chances? On paper, and before this week started, the wise money would be on Ainslie. His record in these situations is outstanding and no one else has got close to converting tense showdowns into convincing victories. But this week Høgh-Christensen has inflicted seven defeats on Ainslie out of 10 races. That is something to stop and think about. Ainslie may have turned it around in the second half of the week, but those defeats will have rubbed a sore wound in the three time Olympic champion's mental armour.
Also compare the indignantly angry Ainslie from Thursday against the outwardly calm and collected Høgh-Christensen. Two very different characters who thrive in different ways. Who will be more focussed on the job? Who will best survive the enormous pressure that both will be under?
Ainslie wasn't giving much away, “It's going to be a fascinating race; I'm really looking forward to it. It's hard to call tactics yet. It depend on the conditions and what sort of mood you are in when you get out of bed in the morning.
“It's going to be a very important race. It's a huge opportunity to race in front of a home crowd. Obviously there's a lot at stake but it is going to be fantastic.”
Høgh-Christensen was more open, “I am not expecting too much in the medal race. PJ is only 14 points behind Ben so if we go into a full out match race then PJ could actually go and win the Olympics. So we have to race. I hope he is set up for that as well. But you never know. That's what I hope. That would be the best for the sport and for the Olympics. We have both sailed well so far and whoever beats who is the fair winner. I've beaten him in seven races and he has beaten me in three. It's still close.”
“We talked before the regatta that the greatest thing would be to go into the medal race and be able to decide it yourself. And I am in that position, so I have just got to go out and sail my best. Luckily I have a good track record on the Nothe course. I won the first race and was leading the practice race, so I'll do what I can to win. I think I’ll focus on my own race and knowing Ben he'll probably try something but he can't try too much because we still have to race so PJ doesn't win.”
“I'm really looking forward to the medal race. It will be very exciting. It will be whoever beats who so it will be an epic battle. That is what we have here and why I love racing.”
Assuming Høgh-Christensen and Ainslie will fight for the gold and silver, there is a four way fight for the bronze. There is only so much Postma can control so most likely he is going to have to sail his own race.
Lobert won the silver at the 2011 Olympic Test Event; Kljakovic Gaspic has won two European Finn titles; Zbogar has already won two Olympic medals in the Laser class. All are extremely competitive sailors and with such a small points gaps between the four, nothing is certain.
Lobert put his slant on it. “There are a lot of us close behind the first two so I'm going to have to pull out all the stops for the medal race. The medal race is different as it is shorter and the wind has a big affect. So I'll have to play the winning hand as I have nothing to lose. It will be bronze or nothing.”
Whatever happens out on the water on Sunday afternoon, the conditions here this week have been exactly what sailing has needed to improve its image. The world has finally seen sailors as athletes, and perhaps finally understood the physical and technical demands of the sport. There have been strong winds, big waves, agony of sailors and pain of defeat. Viewers have watched as sailors have stretched every muscle and sinew for that extra point of speed, seen the extreme boat handing skills required to keep the boats upright and lived the challenge of winning an Olympic medal. It has been a breath of fresh air.
So far it has all been positive news. Sunday's medal race though could well be the sailing event of the year. Don't miss it.
The Finn medal race is scheduled to start at 14.00
Photos by François Richard
More photo galleries here: http://www.finnclass.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=475:image-gallery-2012-olympics&catid=43:olympics&Itemid=266
Full results are mark roundings can be found here: http://www.sailing.org/olympics/london2012/results_centre.php