World champion in waiting?
For many sailors here in Cascais, Greek sailor Emilios Papathanasiou is highly tipped to take the title this week. As the most experienced and medalled sailor in the fleet one would already have expected him to have won a world title but it has continued to elude him time after time. However, he is undoubtedly the best sailor in recent years never to have won a world championship. Could this be his year?
The 34 year old Athens-based sailor competed in his first Olympics in 1996 in Savannah, USA and did so badly that he went home and started to train immediately. This was rewarded the following year with a top ten at the Finn Gold Cup in Gdansk and a third place finish at the European Championships in Split. Since then Papathanasiou has been a force to be reckoned with at every major regatta, but an Olympic medal and a world championship title have always evaporated in front of him. His only major success was in becoming European Champion in 2001.
However, between 2000 and 2002 he took bronze at the Finn Gold Cup three times in a row, behind the likes of Mateusz Kusznierewicz (POL), Sebastien Godefroid (BEL) and Ben Ainslie (GBR). He returned to the podium in 2005 again behind Ainslie, losing the title on the final sailed race. In 2006, he again took the silver medal within a whisker of Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN).
Papathanasiou started his 2007 attempt here in Cascais on Thursday, with two confident race wins in the tricky conditions. Then, as so many times before it seemed to go wrong on Friday. He said: "I had a bad race on Friday in awful conditions - no wind one side, 15 knots the other, 60 degrees shifts, free pumping, no free pumping. I finished 12th. But it has happened now so I look forward keep going and try to discard it." In yesterday's extreme conditions he placed second and third to move back into the lead.
"You need to be careful in those conditions. Sometimes I think I should try to push my boat to the limit. But then you have chance to capsize or damage something and as we are only just starting this world championship, sometimes it pays to be careful."
On second overall Pieter-Jan Postma (NED), he said: "PJ is sailing very well and is showing good form. He proved he's fast in a breeze. He's very good technically, probably one of the best in the fleet. However the points are close so everyone is still in the game. Anyone in top 10 can easily take the medals and I think this is very good for sport and for those watching . I think this is very nice. I hope and I'm sure that the next four races are very enjoyable and interesting for people to watch."
On his preferred conditions, he says he has none in particular: "I prefer to have all types of conditions. Some sailors go really fast in one condition. For me I can survive and get top places in strong winds as well as light winds. This is good and proves why in the last 12 years I have won nine medals in Finn Gold Cup and European Championships. I am very confident in all conditions."
As to the Cascais World Championship so far he reckons: "The top is all very close. Many sailors are still very much in the game. I think the mental race is more technical than physical though and will depend much on experience. Then the medal race itself is very tough. You need to concentrate a lot. When the medal comes close the legs are heavy and the heart beats faster. Here experience can help more than in some other sports. This can make the difference between winning and losing."
Obviously after competing in the 'big breeze' venue of Cascais, next month the Olympic classes move on to the pre-Olympics in Qingdao, where conditions are expected to be very different. "Has this regatta wrecked some sailors chances of performing well in Qingdao because they have prepared for a windy regatta here? No I don't think so. If you want to be top sportsman and top sailor you must be good in all conditions. Who knows what will happen? In Qingdao we could easily have some days of strong winds and big waves. In 2006 almost 40 per cent of regatta was like this, so if you are not ready for everything you have no chance of winning a medal."
Racing off Cascais has been tricky but the Greek has managed to stay on top of it: “I will keep sailing much the same as I have been," he says. "Of course there will be more key sailors on the start line so some parts will be tougher. The key will be to concentrate on the wind, which is off the land, so there are many shifts to look out for. I will keep trying to be consistently in the top four, keep going bit by bit, point by point. Of course sometimes when I see it is possible to push the limit I do so, but under control.
"This is the world championship, it is the most important regatta of the year. Of course everyone wants to win. But this year is an exception. My first priority here is to quality the country for 2008, because next year the Finn Gold Cup is in January in Melbourne, just seven months away from the games in August. That means it will be hard to prepare my body and my priorities in both January and August. So I want to finish here with a good result, qualify the country, then go to Qingdao for the test event. And then after that I will only focus on preparing for the Olympic games."
Racing for the Finn class here in Cascais resumes today at 13.00 after a lay day Sunday. Papathanasiou currently leads Pieter-Jan Postma by one point with Rafael Trujillo (ESP) another two points back. There are only 14 points separating the top ten, so the initial Gold Fleet races could be a crucial decider in the 2007 Finn Gold Cup,