Everything's in place in Qingdao ... except the wind
Mother Nature mars an otherwise excellent Olympic venue, writes Noel Prentice
The flags of the competing countries flutter in the breeze by the boatyard at the Olympic marina, suggesting there will be plenty of wind to fill the sails out at sea.
Thermal winds can be deceiving.
Racing has again been cancelled for the day and boardsailors desperate for some time on the water are trying to leave the marina, pumping their sails like giant butterflies preparing for take-off.
Seven days have painstakingly passed and only four races have been held in the RS:X class because of a lack of wind at the Olympic test event off Qingdao.
'We pretty much wait the whole day ... and then go home without racing,' says frustrated Hong Kong coach Rene Appel.
Organisers continue to play down the wind factor, saying the necessary amount of races at the test events have been finished - and they are confident the competition will go smoothly next year. The reserve days have been built in for insurance.
Two races were held on the eighth day of the event but in winds barely reaching five knots. Windsurfers need six knots, while boats need only three to four knots to be able to race.
'They are very optimistic here with their forecasts,' said Appel, who admitted the lack of wind had 'caused a lot of problems'.
Having the latest data on wind shifts and ocean currents is vital and Appel will look not to race organisers, but the Hong Kong Observatory, which helped the Hong Kong team at the 2004 Games in Athens.
'Their forecasts were much more accurate than from the organisers,' Appel said. 'They will support us directly with detailed weather forecasts. The wild card is a storm or typhoon.'
And ahoy there, the wind appeared from nowhere on Wednesday for the medal race and crushed China's two big hopes - Zhou Yuanguo and Athens silver medallist Yin Jian.
Zhou looked to have the test event in the bag but could not handle the 17-18 knot winds and finished ninth of the 10 sailors, handing the gold medal to New Zealand's Tom Ashley.
Yin, meanwhile, finished eighth and fell out of the top three as the double points for the medal race took its toll.
Appel was incredulous that after a week of no wind, 'perfect sailing conditions' had arrived. 'It threw the whole thing upside down,' he said.
The nearly 380 sailors from 49 countries were unanimous in their praise for the 3.28 billion yuan venue, but left wondering what Mother Nature would throw up next year.
The Olympic marina will open only 10 days before the first race, so Appel plans to find a suitable venue somewhere along the coast in the preceding weeks.
'We need time in the water and it didn't happen here,' he said, admitting that 'if this was our most important event we would have come here a lot earlier'.
Appel, who was instrumental in helping Lee Lai-shan win gold at Atlanta in 1996, believes Hong Kong has the potential to win more medals than ever before, thanks to San San's legacy.
'The government started putting more money into development and now we are seeing those athletes,' he said. 'I would be disappointed if we [windsurfing] didn't get a medal. This is the absolute goal.'
China will be distraught if Yin fails to win gold, after coming agonisingly close in Athens, where she won four of 11 races, but finished two points behind France's Faustine Merret.
It may be a coincidence Qingdao was chosen as the sailing venue but it's Yin and Zhou's backyard and both excel in light winds. 'My technique is suited to the lighter winds,' Yin, 29, said, admitting that she was not the complete athlete, which was cruelly borne out on Wednesday.
Yin said expectations among the 18-strong mainland sailing team were high, with laser radial world champion Xu Lijia helping raise the profile of the sport.
Xu, who turns 20 next Thursday, failed to make much of an impression at the test event this week, saying that it was not her favourite venue. 'I prefer medium and strong winds,' she said.
Xu said she felt the pressure after a week of intense media focus and crowd support. That, though, was nothing to what she can expect next year.
The number of countries that sent competitors to the test event in Qingdao 49