The closing of the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition is also perhaps the end of a magnificent era within the Finn class. With three time gold medalist Ben Ainslie (GBR) announcing that he is very unlikely to ever set foot in a Finn again, his decade of domination is complete and he leaves the stage open for a new generation of heroes to take his place.
The goodbyes are not just limited to Ainslie. Almost a dozen of those who competed at Weymouth and Portland have probably sailed their final Finn regatta and will be hanging up their hiking pants one last time. The game is changing at a fast pace. The new generation are younger, taller, stronger and fitter than ever before. And they are all hungry for success.
Silver medalist Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) pointed this out just a few weeks back, “I love the Finn and think it has gotten a revival with the new physical aspects. It is for sure the hardest boat on the Olympic programme. Real athletes pushing super hard. Next time around there will be no old school sailors with a bit too much fat. They will be fit, tall and young. With that said it looks like my time is up.”
The group of elite athletes that was the Finn fleet at London 2012 had trained together, competed against each other and enjoyed the thrill of the battle together for most of their adult life. Many had done two or three Olympics. Some were newcomers, but all had faced the journey together, living the old cliché, 'The journey is the reward.'
As we witnessed during the competition, the sailors can be ruthless on the water but have a great sense of camaraderie off the water. Bronze medalist Jonathan Lobert (FRA) put it best, “The most important thing I learned in the Finn Class is that it is possible to sail like gentlemen – enemies on the water, but very good friends on the shore.”
While the older sailors have perhaps had their day in the limelight the young are ready to move in to try and emulate their heroes. Many of those sailing in London 2012, and some who missed selection, have already started their campaign for Rio 2016. But there is no easy route. It's a long hard road of perseverance and dedication. Some of those who learned valuable lessons in 2012 will be those who will shine in 2016. London 2012 is behind us, and we look forward to the challenges that Rio 2016 will bring.
The battle in the Finn class proved to be the highlight of the sailing competition at London 2012. Quite how it played out no one could have guessed, but it turned into a nail biter right through to the closing minutes of the very last race.
The best sailor of the opening series was undoubtedly Høgh-Christensen. The best sailor in the medal race was probably Lobert. Meanwhile Ainslie was making headlines because he was not producing the dominating performance that everyone expected. He said, "It is always hard when people say you are a dead cert to win; you try to tell them that is not the case, but they don't listen.”
Though Høgh-Christensen ran away with the first half of the competition in terms of a points lead, in fairness, Ainslie had also put together a pretty good series. His only problem was that the Dane had beaten him in all six races.
Then, in the second half of the week, Høgh-Christensen started making a few mistakes. He'd already had a start boat collision in race 4 and then a capsize in race 7 perhaps showed the pressure was getting to him. Ainslie did what he does best. He pounced, grabbed the opportunity by the throat and sank his teeth in hard so he couldn't let go. With a grimace of determination on his face he gradually clawed back the points gap going into the deciding medal race.
However, in spite of that comeback, Ainslie was clearly under par, we later learned in pain and, in the end, probably quite lucky to come away with the gold. While he struggled with making comebacks in most races, Høgh-Christensen was making them with much more regularity – his epic speed taking him to the front for a while in all but a few races. Only once or twice did Ainslie show the kind of form that had made him the out-and-out pre-regatta favourite for the gold.
The Nothe spectator area provided a great view of the minefield of windshifts and holes on the medal race course, right across to the Portland Harbour wall on the far side. It played havoc within the fleet. We were told it was a price everyone had to pay, though some paid more dearly than others. In the medal race, for the first time the whole week, the right paid on the first beat which negated the advantage Høgh-Christensen had over Ainslie out of the start.
From then on it became a simple match race between the two best performing sailors of the week. Ainslie led Høgh-Christensen at the top mark and once he had control he never let it go. There was a heart stopping moment when Pieter-Jan Postma (NED) emerged from a big left shift on the final beat to round the final top mark in third on a last minute charge – one more place for Postma and the gold would have been heading to The Netherlands – but it wasn't to be.
You have to feel sorry for Postma. He had done enough for a medal but for some reason decided to push for the gold, rather than consolidate for silver or bronze. In many ways it was a brave move, but one that left him without a medal of any colour. It was barely 50 metres to the finish and he had a medal in his hands. As he tried to pass Dan Slater (NZL), the end of his boom touched the back of Slater's boat. Slater explained, “I said to him, 'Mate you've got a medal. Don't have a go here. It's not on.' I was in a good position to beat Rafa for seventh overall so I had a race on myself. I felt for PJ because he totally made a meal of it. But that's the pressure of these things. He had a medal sewn up and he took a big risk considering where we were and the timing of it.”
In the end Høgh-Christensen’s mistakes, combined with Postma rash move in the medal race, all conspired to hand the gold medal to Ainslie. It seemed like he was destined to win it all along, to irrefutably make his mark in sailing history.
With both Ainslie and Høgh-Christensen hinting at their 'retirement' from the class – Ainslie stated, “It can never get any better than this and I'm not sure I would want to go through it again.” while Høgh-Christensen said, "I don't have any sights for Rio. I've been talking with Ben about this and we'd either like to see it on TV or go there as commentators" – what of the next generation? Bronze medalist Lobert is typical of the kind of sailor the class in now attracting. He towers over most of his fellow sailors, is many years younger and is at the peak of his career. He is the perfect epitome of the new generation Finn sailor: very tall, very fit, very strong and very athletic. Just watch him move around the boat and you'll understand.
Some are saying the Finn medal race was probably the most watched race in Olympic sailing history. About 70,000 people are thought to have descended on Weymouth to watch Ainslie secure his fourth gold medal and overcome the Great Dane. The spectator area was full to capacity. The free areas on either side were straining at the seams, while more than 3,000 had gathered on the stone pier. Thousands more filled the free live site on Weymouth Beach.
There is no doubt that having spectators at the sailing events proved very popular with the spectators, while the sailors clearly loved it and thrived on the atmosphere it created. For some, the cheering crowd was the high point of the week, while others would have prefered a fairer playing field instead of a show in front of the public. In how many other Olympic sports has the requirements of the spectators, and the TV audience, been allowed to take precedence over the quality of racing? It might have been the same for everyone, but elements of randomness were always present.
And so, after 10 years of Ainslie domination, it certainly does seem like the end of an era. Ainslie has left the door slightly open with a 'never say never' comment, but he also dropped enough hints that this will be the last time we see him in a Finn, and probably the last time at the Olympics. After a decade at the top he has not only broken all the records in the class but made new ones that are unlikely ever to be broken. Along the way he achieved the highest accolade the Finn class can bestow on its sailors with his entry into the Hall of Fame way back in 2004. Since then he has won three more world titles and two more Olympic gold medals. It was quite a run.
If we have written the last chapter of the Ainslie era in the Finn class then it has been a privilege to watch. Almost single-handedly he took Finn sailing to a whole new level of excellence and focussed the spotlight of the world's media on the toughest Olympic class of them all.
But the class is already moving on. As one era ends, a new one is about to begin.