Sailing is one of those sports that doesn’t tend to get much coverage in Ireland – merely adding to the novel interest of the Olympics when lesser-known athletes like Annalise Murphy begin to attract public attention.
Murphy has gotten her Olympic campaign off to the greatest of starts – winning each of her first four races. But hang on – four races? How many does she have to do?
For the novice observer it can often be difficult to figure out exactly how sailors are ranked at competitive level. While the rules of the Olympic sailing regatta are relatively straightforward once you understand them – but need a little bit of concentration to figure out exactly they work.
So here’s your crash course to how the Olympic regatta ranks its participants – and what Annalise, and the other aquatic members of Team Ireland, need to do to stay in the running.
The ‘group phase’
There are 10 races in each class of boat (which are differentiated by the number of sailors needed to pilot each craft, and the characteristics of the craft itself). This is true in all but a small number of classes, including the Men’s 49er (featuring Ireland’s Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern) in which there are 15 races.
Naturally, within each race, competitors are ranked simply by the time they take to get around the course. In each race the competitors start directly beside each other – and it’s the one who completes the course (usually eight or ten ‘marks’ in length) first that gets the win.
Across the whole competition, however, the focus is not on the time but on the overall placings that each sailor (or team) achieves. After each race, participants are given a defined number of points. The winner gets 1 point, the second place gets 2 points, and so on.
After all 10 or 15 races have been completed, each competitor drops their worst race – which is only fair, given that occasionally a boat can topple simply by virtue of being in a crowded field, or by having another boat collapse on top of it.
Into the final
The points from the remaining 9 or 14 races are then added together, and the ten best competitors – those with the fewest points – qualify for the ‘final’, or medal race. Crucially, the points from the 9 (or 14) races carry over into the final.
In the final, the structure is exactly the same – the ten boats line up and compete as they previous did. The only difference is that in the final, points count double – so the winner gets 2 points instead of 1, the second place gets 4 instead of 2.
The overall winner is the sailor or crew with the fewest aggregate points across the 9 (or 14) races and the final.
The system means that performance in the final doesn’t necessarily dictate where the medals go – if the top sailor has built up a healthy enough lead on points, they could still take the gold if they come second or third in the final.
The regime does mean, though, that a good string of early performances can make all the difference, and take a lot of pressure off individual sailors – so Annalise’s perfect start is a major asset as the competition continues.