This summer Stephen Park flies to Rio 2016 (see Sailing at the 2016 Rio Olympics) as head of the British Sailing Team for his fourth successive Olympic Games. The man known to most as ‘Sparky’ has been an integral part of Team GB’s success in Olympic sailing for the past 20 years. After campaigning in the 470 and Tornado catamaran classes in the 90s, the straight-talking Scot joined the RYA and went to Sydney 2000 as a coach, helping Ian Barker and Simon Hiscocks to a silver medal in the 49er skiff class.
Sydney was a breakthrough Games for British sailing, the three gold medals and two silvers making sailing Britain’s most successful Olympic sport that year. That success has continued ever since, with five medals at Athens 2004, six at Beijing 2008 and five at London 2012. Now the pressure is on Sparky to deliver a similar haul from Rio 2016.
A tough challenge
There are a few reasons why matching past successes will be tough to achieve in Rio. Firstly, the venue. The close-to-shore race courses will be great for spectators, but at times very random and unpredictable for the sailors. Expect plenty of upsets. That said, Sparky believes the pros outweigh the cons. “I think sailing will be one of the key sports in these Games, and that’s because there won’t be many sports that are able to use the incredible backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer.
“We can expect to see some of the most iconic images from these Games being produced from the sailing competition, and that’s great for our sport. Add to that the country flags that are now standard on all the sailing classes, and the fact that we only have one entry for each event, and you really get a strong visual sense of the international nature of the competition. Rio 2016 is a very exciting opportunity for us to showcase our sport.”
When Brazil’s most celebrated city was initially selected as the Olympic venue, there were concerns that this would be a very light-wind regatta, that it would demand a lot of optimisation of equipment and demand lightweight sailors. But experience at the venue over the past four years has suggested the regatta will provide a much more all-round test. While the potential randomness of the inshore courses remains a slight concern to Sparky, he is confident the cream will rise to the top. “Provided the wind is good enough to get in a full series of races, there should be time for the best sailors to rise to the top of the rankings and be in a position to fight for medals on the final day.” Sparky says he has 75 per cent confidence in seeing a full series of races run in Rio this summer.
But what of the much-reported problems with pollution and the toxicity of the water? “It’s certainly been an issue,” he says, “but there has been a lot of work going on around Marina da Gloria to ensure that some of the raw sewage problems have been dealt with there, where the sailors are launching.”
Harder to manage is the general water quality out in Guanabara Bay, which bears the brunt of poor or non-existent sewage works in the towns favelas. When it rains, the filth gets washed down the hillsides and straight into the Bay.
A greater worry to Sparky and his sailors however is the physical detritus that also gets washed into the sea. “The physical rubbish in the water is potentially the bigger problem, when you see a boat sailing across a tide line and there are plastic bags and all kinds of other stuff. The faster the boat, the bigger the problem as you could be sailing along at 15 knots but then you have to stop to clear your foils while everyone is carrying on and maybe getting 300 metres ahead in the race - through no real fault of your own.”
A new generation of sailors
Another key reason why Rio 2016 could be more challenging than previous Games is the passing of the ‘golden generation’ of sailors who had been winning medals for Team GBR for a long time, the likes of Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy, Paul Goodison, and the late Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson. The team going to Rio will on average be younger and less experienced.
However, as Sparky points out, some of their successors have been operating at the top of their game for a long time, even if they’ve had to wait a long time for their first crack at the Olympic Games. “It might seem like a big changing of the guard, which it is in some ways, but Giles Scott has been winning for a long time in the Finn now [Scott has won four world titles in the heavyweight singlehander], and we’ve seen what Nick Thompson can do [winner of numerous Laser World Championship medals including gold in 2015 and 2016].”
In fact Sparky’s squad will include the reigning world champion in all three singlehanded dinghy events, the other being Alison Young, who recently won her first world title in the Laser Radial.
The team does still include medal veterans from past Games: the RS-X windsurfers Nick Dempsey and Bryony Shaw, the 470 silver medallists from London 2012, Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, and Luke Patience now crewed by Games rookie Chris Grube. Their medal-winning experience will prove vital in helping the Olympic virgins cope with the enormity of the Games.
“The challenge, of course, is not getting carried away with the circus,” says Sparky, “and the noise that comes with the Olympic Games. In theory, of course, the Olympic Games should be a regatta that’s easier to win than the World Championship. There’s less competition, there’s fewer nations, and only one boat per nation. In all classes the number of boats are limited, but some classes, the numbers of competitive boats is significantly down on what it would be on a major international championship. But of course, it’s often far harder to win an Olympic medal because of the challenges, because of the pressure that you feel. So, first I’ve been trying to help support those sailors, to put them in the right place, to give them the benefits of that experience, to try and ensure they don’t get distracted by the noise of the Games and can focus on delivering their best performance.”
The Olympic buzz
Even now, about to fly to his fifth Olympiad, Sparky says he still feels that same shiver of excitement down his spine. “The Olympic Games is such a big pinnacle in our sport. And so it’s great to see all that level of competition and preparation coming together, and also seeing the impact that the Games itself has on a city as it gets ready to host what is the biggest peacetime gathering of human beings on the planet. So, being part of that central stage that gives those athletes the real opportunity to perform at their best, and to show what they can really do in that environment, it’s fantastic. It’s a feeling that never gets old.”
Read all about sailing at the Olympics here.