Since winning Olympic gold in the men’s – 49er single scull at Rio 2016 five years ago, Pete Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL) have devoted a lifetime of sailing to their busy careers.
In 2017, Burling led Emirates Team New Zealand’s foiling catamaran to America’s Cup victory in Bermuda, with Tuke further ahead in the flight controls of his best mate. A year later, they clashed on rival boats on their first round-the-world trip.
Arriving at the finish of the last stage of this year-long marathon called the Volvo Ocean Race, Burling or Tuke seemed on the verge of becoming the first winners of the race, before being overtaken by the other boat, the Chinese, in a way, last battle for victory.
Earlier this year, Burling and Tuke were once again central to New Zealand’s successful defense in the America’s Cup. This was supposed to happen after the Tokyo 2020 Games, but with the postponement of the year, the Kiwis had to jump straight out of their multi-million dollar AC75 spacecraft and familiarize themselves with the slightly more affordable and simpler pleasures of the 49er race.
Despite the distractions of the Volvo Ocean Race, two America’s Cup campaigns and more recently the SailGP circuit, the six-fold world champions are still favorites for 49er gold in Tokyo.
Among the challengers to the Kiwi crown are Rio 2016 bronze medalists Erik Heil and Tommy Ploessel (GER) who always light it up for special occasions. Although they took time in their campaign, they scored second at the 2019 Worlds and third at the 2020 Worlds. Now in their early 30s, Heil and Ploessel feel ready for another defining performance in Tokyo.
“We want to win a medal again,” said Heil, “preferably in an even nicer color than last time.”
Medical student Heil and mechanical engineering graduate Ploessel led the Kiwis closely to the 2019 world title in Auckland. “We got closer to them, closer than ever,” Heil remarked at the time.
At the cry of the medal at the end of Rio 2016, the Briton Dylan Fletcher who, with Alain Sign, finished sixth in the general classification. Fletcher has since teamed up with 470 Olympic silver medalist Stu Bithell in London 2012.
Fletcher is focused, sometimes prickly, while Bithell appears to be the artist but is much more than that. From rivals, they became good friends and had a string of good results over the past four years, including victory at the 2017 World and European Championships.
However, in 2017 Burling and Tuke were absent from the 49er as they traveled the world in the Volvo Ocean Race. Fletcher and Bithell didn’t beat the Kiwis in a world championship, so do they have the confidence to wrest the Olympic crown from their celebratory rivals?
Bithell admits the duo are “super tough competition.”
âWe are up against maybe the most successful sailing team in the world – they are great together,â he said. “I like to put a positive spin on things and to say that it creates an opportunity for us to beat the best team in the world.”
Spaniards Diego Botin and Iago Marra have spent the last few years carving out the lead in the 49er fleet, gradually improving their scores season after season. The Spanish team finished fourth at the 2019 Worlds and second in 2020 behind their usual training partners Burling and Tuke, whom they probably know better than anyone in the Olympic fleet.
2008 Beijing Olympic champion Jonas Warrer is back to represent Denmark, along with Jakob Precht Jensen’s crew. In 2008, even Warrer would admit that he had used more than his fair share of fortune to land gold under the most extraordinary and controversial circumstances.
Contrary to predictions of a windless Beijing, the 49er Medal Race that year turned out to be extremely windy and extremely wavy, and not everyone was prepared and underweight for these odious conditions.
âI was sailing before the start with my crew Martin Kirketerp,â recalls Warrer. âWe broke the mast half a minute after hoisting the spinnaker. We thought our regatta was over but we rushed ashore and the Croats lent us their boat for the race.
There is a lot more to this incredible story, but the story now is can the 42-year-old repeat gold, 13 years later?
Warrer knows what it’s like to finish first, and he knows what it’s like to finish fourth, his position at Rio 2016. âI took a break after Rio, but I think my idea was to do it again. Olympic Games. I know what it’s like to be in the medals and to be out of the medals. Winning a medal is more fun.
Warrer Jensen’s crew hope that the spirit of 2008 will return to bring them to victory.
âLeading the regatta, breaking a mast and winning a medal, we’re doing it all over again,â Jensen jokes about his coxswain’s streak in Beijing. “Of course we want to come away from Tokyo with a medal and if it’s gold it’s even better.”
Sime Fantela became the first sailor to win a gold medal in sailing for Croatia in the 470 class five years ago in Rio. Teaming up with his brother Mihovil, Sime made a quick and successful pass to the 49er. The brothers won the 2018 World Championship after just 18 months in this demanding class. It’s probably an away bet for the 49er podium, but Sime is a crafty competitor who probably won’t be intimidated by the opportunity.
Another pair of brothers to watch out for, especially if the breeze and big waves kick in, are first-time Olympians Will and Sam Phillips racing for Australia.
In the wake of London 2012 gold medalists and Rio 2016 silver medalists Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, the Aussie siblings have some big footlooops to fill, but a recent workout on the big waves on the Queensland coast with Burling and Tuke should hold them well for the Enoshima Pacific swell.
Others to watch out for are Austrians Benjamin Bildstein and David Hussl, who have a very strong record in Olympic waters, the highlight being a silver medal at the Hempel World Cup Series Enoshima two years ago. They were bronze medalists at the 2017 Worlds, with a sixth in 2019 and a fourth in 2020, very consistent scores that make the Austrians a real threat for the podium.
The rapidly improving Dutch team of Bart Lambriex and Pim van Vugt are starting to look like the real deal, consistently finishing in the top six for major events.
Irish Sean Waddilove and Rob Dickson probably wouldn’t have made it to Tokyo if it had been in 2020, but this young team took advantage of winter training in southern Europe to really show they were serious.
The young Irish crew took last place for Tokyo at the Lanzarote International Regatta in March, winning their first-ever Medal Race at the event and clinching a bronze medal in front of a world-class fleet.
The 49er fleet comprises 19 world-class teams. They will compete in an opening series of 12 races, with the first three races scheduled for July 27 at the Enoshima course, starting at 2:45 p.m. JST. Their Medal Race on August 2 will close their competition.
Tokyo 2020 details – Race information – Entry list – How to watch
The racing program is staggered for the ten sailing events from July 25 to August 4.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Sailing Program
Men’s single-seater sailing dinghy – ILCA 7
Women’s single-seater sailing dinghy – ILCA 6
Men’s two-seater sailing dinghy – 470
Women’s two-seater sailing dinghy – 470
Men’s single scull – 49er
Women’s single scull – 49erFx
Single-person heavy dinghy for men – Finn
Windsurfing for men – RS: X
Windsurfing for women – RS: X
Mixed Multihull – Nacra 17
Original dates: July 24 to August 9, 2020
Revised dates: July 23 to August 8, 2021
Source: World Sailing