Sailing: Rio’s ill wind threatens to undermine Annalise Murphy

Ireland Olympic medal hope prefers good stiff breeze but host city unlikely to oblige

Annalise Murphy in action at the London Games in 2012, where she secured Ireland’s top Olympic sailing result in 30 years. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

Annalise Murphy in action at the London Games in 2012, where she secured Ireland’s top Olympic sailing result in 30 years. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

 

The chairman of the Irish Sports Council Kieran Mulvey is not the only one referring to Annalise Murphy as one of “Ireland’s great hopes” for 2016 but there is concern in sailing circles about mounting pressure on the solo Laser Radial sailor to repeat her London 2012 performance next summer in Rio.

Murphy secured Ireland’s top Olympic sailing result in 30 years but the worry is that Rio’s light airs won’t suit the 25-year-old, who is much more at home in strong winds.

It’s been a recurring problem and was highlighted in April at the ISAF World Cup in France and again this month in Denmark.

In France, Murphy scored a lowly 30th overall in an event that in many ways mirrored the conditions and competitors expected in Rio. If winds had been stronger though, as they were on the final day, it is arguably an event she could have won.

The same could have been said last week in Aarhus in Denmark. However, no campaign can be based on one wind strength and most Olympic medals are won by sailors who are all-round performers.

After Aarhus, Murphy wrote on Facebook that she “just made too many mistakes”, while her coach, quoted in this newspaper, said the failure was not important as it was merely a “process regatta”.

Neither response deals with the elephant in the room. With a year to go to Rio, can anything be done to sort out her light air boat speed?

For Irish sailing it is a sobering prospect. The sport is one of the best funded of all for Rio so it is clear the Government is expecting results.

As a further incentive, a bonus will be paid if sailing wins a medal.

Consequences

The Irish Sailing Association (ISA) is pinning its hopes on the notion that maybe – just maybe – there will be untypical conditions in Rio in August 2016 and that Murphy can shine again at her second Olympics.

Three years ago we all shared in the agony of Murphy’s fourth-place finish in Weymouth. It was an exciting time and the strong breezes that blew for nearly a fortnight on the English south coast were ideally suited to the Dun Laoghaire helms woman, who won her first four races.

A year later, in similar conditions, she became 2013 European champion, with victory all the sweeter because it was won on her home waters of Dublin Bay. She revelled in the medium and strong breezes and in the process earned the moniker ‘The Lever’ by jealous competitors who could not match her blistering heavy air pace.

Upper body mass

In fact, ‘The Breeze Queen,’ as she is also known, combines her physical advantage with tremendous boat-handling ability and a lot of heavy air nous.

Problems arise though when the wind doesn’t blow. In anything less than eight to 10 knots she has serious speed problems. It is the reason why some pundits don’t rate Murphy as a potential champion because she does not perform across the wind range.

Analysis of her campaign results to date show her superiority in winds of 12 knots and above, while race scores suffer when the winds are lower.

Her results graph resembles an alpine profile and if a graph of average wind speed at each regatta was superimposed on her results graph, it wouldn’t be far from a mirror image: the greater the wind speed, the better the result.

What does all this mean for Rio? Average wind speeds in August in Guanabara Bay, the proposed sailing site, average eight knots. Only 16 per cent of the time in August does the wind get to force four (11-16 knots).

For someone targeting an improvement on her fourth place at London, the Rio weather must weigh heavily on her mind.

One option touted, but one that may not be really practicable, is to work on changing Murphy’s physical characteristics.

It is one thing to put on weight but quite another to reduce it considerably and retain the other elements that make her such a talented sailor.

The recent news that suggests the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are considering a plan B, must be followed with great interest by Murphy and the ISA.

Now that it is clear that the serious pollution problem in Guanabara Bay will not be even halved by the time the Olympics come around, there remains a glimmer of hope that the powers that be will consider a different venue – if not for the complete Games schedule, then for the sailing events. Buzios, 160km to the east, enjoys a considerably higher average wind speed and has event-hosting history, having hosted the Youth World Championships in 2009.

Instead of pumping up the team for sponsors with ‘going for gold’ messaging as it did for London, the ISA might be better served highlighting the problems that exist in Guanabara Bay and join the growing chorus of national governing bodies in agitating for a change of venue.

Performance staff

Ultimately, it needs to please its paymaster. Results are what count and in the past 30 years only Murphy has delivered. On the back of London 2012, a mini Olympic sailing industry of youth academies, grants, coaches and management has sprouted thanks to the best State support Irish sailing has ever had.

But, as the hype around the five-ring circus starts to build, Irish sailing might do well to remember that one young lady has already delivered for Ireland, so there is a duty to manage future expectations, especially in Rio.

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