Sailing gold rush spells bright future
Last night three Central Coasties put Australia on top of the sailing world. Lake Macquarie pair Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen secured a gold medal in the 49er class with the medal race to spare, while Tom Slingsby won Australia’s first ever gold in the single-handed Laser class.
Outteridge, to use a cliché, is a Hollywood story. The once-in-a-generation talent recovered from a near fatal car accident to compete in the Beijing Olympics. But with the gold medal in his grasp during the medal race, he and crew Ben Austin capsized and finished off the podium.
Now he finally gets his fairytale finish. His professional future is also secure, earlier this year signing a deal to skipper the Team Korea America’s Cup syndicate.
Outteridge and Jensen’s success is a poignant one for the Australian sailing community. The Aussie-designed 49er class was introduced into the Olympics in 2000 to replicate the skiff classes in which Antipodean sailors excel; the 18 footers have long been part of the summer scenery of waterways such as Sydney Harbour and were once a fixture of lunch breaks in the cricket.
Yet Europeans won the class in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. There is a feeling now that this gold medal has at last arrived where it belongs – down under.
Last night’s golds are also a victory for the grassroots of the sport in Australia. Sailing has long been considered the aquatic version of equestrian, a sport accessible only to the wealthy and the establishment class.
Former Olympic sailors include King Constantine II of Greece, who won a gold medal in 1960, and members of the Norwegian, Thai and Spanish royal families.
But over the last two decades, international sailing administrators have cleverly sought to open up the sport. The pretentious term ‘yachting’ was dropped for ‘sailing’. Out went expensive European classes such as the Soling and Tornado; in came simpler and cheaper boats such as the Laser and the 49er. The Laser in which Slingsby won gold would have cost less than $10,000.
With the growing egalitarianism of the sport, Australia has become one of its dominant nations. Over 90 percent of the country’s population lives within an hour’s drive of a sailing club. And it is the accessible local sailing clubs that are producing our champions.
Outteridge and Jensen hail from the Wangi Wangi RSL Amateur Sailing Club on Lake Macquarie; Slingsby is from the similarly unassuming Gosford Sailing Club. Their victories are victories for the hundreds of such clubs around the country, offering affordable sailing to working and middle-class families.
Credit must also go to the staff behind the scenes, especially the team’s head coach Victor Kovalenko, who migrated to Australia from the Ukraine in the 1990s to coach the 470 squads.
After leading both men’s and women’s crews to gold in Sydney, he was promoted to the position of head coach of the national sailing squad.
Now a naturalised Australian, with an Order of Australia medal to boot, Kovalenko’s methods have played a large part in the restoration of Australia’s sailing fortunes after the medal drought of the 1980s and 1990s.
With a young team under his supervision, Australia’s prospects for Rio in 2016 look bright.
Meanwhile, Australia remains a strong chance to win two more sailing golds at this Games. Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page hold a narrow lead in the men’s 470 class. Olivia Price, Nina Curtis and Lucinda Whitty head into the quarter-finals of the women’s match racing tonight on an undefeated record.
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