Tokyo Olympics 2020: AUT Sailing Professor Mark Orams – This could be NZ’s greatest Games but at what cost?


The Olympic Games showcase everything that is great about sport – an opportunity to bring people from diverse backgrounds together and to showcase human potential across a wide range of competitive disciplines.

It always produces remarkable feats of performance, but also of sportsmanship, unity, and friendship. It can, however, also provide examples of the negative side of human nature when individuals and, sometimes, entire nations deliberately cheat the rules in order to gain an advantage. It has always been enthralling – and it will be so again over the next two weeks.

Like many Kiwis, I am conflicted about Tokyo 2020. My love of the Olympics is tempered with the understanding that holding an event that brings more than 10,000 people together from all around the world and then disperses them again back to those origins, is exactly what we should not do during a global pandemic.

If you wanted to design a super-spreader event for Covid-19 in the presence of the new hyper-contagious Delta variant, this event is it. From a human health perspective holding these Games is just not smart.

Nevertheless, they are under way and yes I will watch them and I will love it – all the while hoping that our indulgence in sport does not result in increased numbers of people dying.

From an Aotearoa New Zealand perspective these Games have the potential to be our most successful – if we judge success purely on the number of medals won, that is.

The lack of crowds, the need to adapt to changing circumstances (as Hamish Bond had to when deciding to forgo the opening ceremony flagbearer duties because of a schedule change), and the adversity are all circumstances that Kiwis tend to respond well to.

Perhaps because of our size and isolation as a nation and our lower numbers of athletes and support in almost every sport we are resilient and adaptable – attributes that will be needed at these Games.

Our sailors have a long and rich history in the Games, in fact, the sport is easily our most successful in terms of medal hauls over the past 40 years.

Since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, New Zealand has won 20 sailing medals (rowing and athletics are second-equal with 18 medals each). Sailing has produced medals in every Olympic Games from 1984 (with the exception of Athens 2004 where our sailors produced a frustrating fifth, two sevenths, and an eighth).

It’s a remarkable record and reflects the strength of the sport in our nation over an extended period (our first sailing gold medal was achieved at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in a yacht that was home-built from centuries-old kauri logs in Christchurch by Peter Mander and his brother Graham and their mates Jack Cropp and Graeme Wilson).

Yachting New Zealand’s selection policy for the Olympics continues to be hard. Unlike most other Olympic sports, meeting the qualification standard is not enough to earn selection. YNZ has a “must be medal capable” standard which means that of the 10 sailing classes at these Tokyo Olympics, only six will bear the pride of NZL on their sails.

Each of these six is genuine medal prospects – Sam Meech in the ILCA 7 (formerly known as the Laser), Paul Snow-Hansen and Daniel Willcox (470), Josh Junior (Finn), Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson (Nacra 17), Alex Maloney and Molly Meech (49er FX), and the 49er pair of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.

The sailing venue for these Games in Sagami Bay, based out of Enoshima Harbour southwest of Tokyo, is well suited to the Kiwi crews. A deep-water venue exposed to open ocean swells and with a likely wide range of wind, current, and wave conditions bodes well for our sailors. These variable conditions are common in New Zealand waters and the adaptability of Kiwi sailors is world-renowned.

The first sailor to compete will be Meech, with two races (out of a series of 10) this afternoon (from 5.35pm) kicking off his campaign. Meech is experienced and will be competitive. In his mind will be the old sailing adage, “you cannot win the regatta on the first day, but you can lose it”. It is important that he has a good first two races, but more important that he does not have two bad ones. An early disqualification, equipment breakage, capsize, or risky tactical decision which finds him deep in the fleet must be avoided.

The sailing event is the longest of any sport at the Olympic Games. Ten races, over a week in duration, provides a test physically and mentally. It’s going to be a fascinating watch.

Kia kaha, NZL Sailing Team. Do us proud.

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