A gold medal went to each side of the Tasman Sea on Friday in a dominating showing from Down Under in sailing’s 470 class.
Australia’s Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page, and New Zealand’s Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie won the gold medals by overwhelming their British rivals on Weymouth Bay on a spectacular sunny afternoon.
The victory by Belcher and Page guaranteed that Australia will win more sailing gold medals than the strong, well-funded British team. That’s a remarkable feat, although the British will lead all countries with five sailing medals – one gold and four silvers. The British came in thinking they had a shot at medals in all 10 classes.
The Australians lead the British three to one in golds, with only the women’s match racing to be decided. The Australian crew is still alive in women’s match racing while Britain’s was sent home in the quarter-finals. Belcher and Page back flipped off their dinghy after the finish, causing it to capsize.
When Aleh and Powrie came ashore, their teammates and coaches lifted them up, boat and all, and carried them into the boat park.
Aleh and Powrie came into the medals race tied on points with the British crew of Hannah Mills and Saski Clark. The British forced the Kiwis to the right side of the course because they liked the left side, but then the wind shifted. That put the Kiwis solidly in the lead and they sailed on to victory. The British finished ninth in the 10-boat fleet.
It’s the first gold medal for the Kiwis in a boat with a rudder since 1984, when Russell Coutts topped the Finn fleet and Rex Sellers and Christopher Timms won the Tornado class. Coutts went on to become the most dominant skipper in America’s Cup history.
The Kiwis have been strong in windsurfing in recent Olympics, but until these games, they hadn’t won any medals in boats with rudders since 1992.
“It’s the start of another good time for New Zealand,” Aleh said.
“It’s been a while since the Kiwis have brought back the medals. This year it’s a gold and a silver, now. Hopefully it’s just the beginning.”
On Wednesday, the Kiwi 49er skiff crew of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke took silver.
Aleh was inspired to get into sailing by Team New Zealand’s win over Dennis Conner in the 1995 America’s Cup, the first of three straight victories for Coutts. His first two were with the Kiwis and the third was with Alinghi of Switzerland. Coutts was CEO of BMW Oracle Racing when it beat Alinghi in 2010 to bring the America’s Cup back to the United States.
The women’s 470 bronze medal went to Lisa Westerhof and Lobke Berkout of the Netherlands.
Americans Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan were 10th in the medals race, leaving them ninth overall.
The Americans failed to win an Olympic sailing medal for the first time since 1936.
Belcher and Page finished second in the men’s medal race behind Croatia, with the British duo of Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell finishing fourth to take the silver. All the Australians had to do was finish ahead of Great Britain.
The British needed to finish ahead of the Aussies, with a boat between, to win the gold. Patience and Bithell got ahead of Belcher and Page at the start before being overhauled by the Aussies on the first downwind leg.
Argentina’s Lucas Calabrese and Juan de la Fuente won the bronze.
Shortly after crossing the finish line, Belcher and Page did backflips off their dinghy, capsizing it.
Soon there were three boats upside down in the water. Patience and Bithell, and Calabrese and de la Fuente also capsized their boats. The six sailors congratulated each other together.
“That was a good moment, actually,” Patience said.
“You travel around the world tour together for years and you make great friends along the way. We actually all have a lot in common, don’t we, because we’re all here with the same life dream goals. It gets pretty tense but it’s nice to just breathe out finally. It’s all over for everyone. What’s done is done.
“Actually, we’re all quite good mates and we can celebrate together,” he said.
“It’s going to be a good evening; have a beer and say ‘cheers.’ It’s been a good four years.”
Page was on the winning 470 crew in Beijing, sailing with Nathan Wilmot.
When Page and Belcher came ashore Friday, they were hoisted onto teammates’ shoulders and each was given an Australian flag.
Page said this was his last Olympics.
“I’ve gone through the highs and lows over those years, to missing selection to failing at the games, to obviously feeling the highest rewards of success in Beijing,” he said. “But these four years have probably been the most rewarding.”
Belcher drove a media boat at Beijing. The day after Page won the gold, Belcher suggested that they sail together for these games.
“It’s better to sail it and have the opportunity that we have,” Belcher said. “I’ve spent 12 years trying to get to this stage.”
Australia’s other gold medallists in this regatta were Tom Slingsby in the Laser class and Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen in the 49er skiff.
In women’s match racing Friday, Australia and Spain made it to the final.
The Australians were leading Finland and Spain was ahead of Russia in light winds when the time limit expired. Finland and Russia face each other for the bronze.
The sailoffs for fifth through eighth places were cancelled due to lack of wind.