Ben Ainslie of Great Britain won a silver medal in 1996 and gold at the last three Olympics. If he wins one more gold, he'll surpass Denmark's Paul Elvstrom, winner of four golds between 1948 and 1960, as the most decorated sailor in Olympic history. Ainslie, who grew up near where the competition will be held on England's South Coast, has a hot side not usually seen in this decorous sport: At last December's Worlds in Australia, believing that a media boat had generated wake to benefit a rival, he dove into the water, swam to and boarded the offending craft, and began mixing it up with a cameraman.
That episode didn't keep London organizers from choosing him as the first person to carry the torch after the Olympic flame arrived at Land's End in May. But does it -- along with the result of his final pre-Olympic tune-up, where he capsized his Finn class boat in last month's Sail for Gold regatta -- signal a chink in his psychological armor?
Britain has led the sailing medal count for three Olympics running, and its home-waters advantage figures to extend that streak. Team manager Stephen Park believes his sailors can challenge in each of the 10 events.
The Brits' best chances beyond Ainslie are Alison Young in the Laser Radial class; Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell, and Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, in the men's and women's 470, respectively; and in the Star with Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, who have been friends since age 8.
If Ainslie falters, poised to pounce is U.S. team captain Zach Railey, who won the silver in Beijing and has bagged gold and silver in two of three World Cups this year. His younger sister, Paige Railey, missed the '08 Games when she capsized as a result of her lifejacket catching on the boom at the U.S. trials, but she landed a bronze in the Laser Radial class at last year's Worlds and has wound up on the podium at 13 World Cup events since 2009.
But the best medal prospects for the U.S. may be in the sole new event, the women's match race. The team of Anna Tunnicliffe, Debbie Capozzi and Molly Vandermoer is ranked No. 1 in the world; if the trio were to win gold, Tunnicliffe -- champion in the Laser Radial in Beijing -- would become the first U.S. sailor of either sex to be an Olympic titlist in two classes.
For any medals the Americans win, they'll owe a debt to the U.S. Navy, which led them through a sampling of SEAL training, including a "hell-week" regimen that left some team members cursing, crying and only just this side of hypothermia. Once you've carried a boat, sailing it seems a lot easier.
By bringing its sailors to England for five months to better get to know the course, and by winning three firsts at the Sail for Gold regatta, the Australian men signaled that they will be Britain's biggest threat. At the Sail for Gold, the Aussies infuriated defending Olympic men's Laser titlist Paul Goodison of Britain, who believed they collaborated to squeeze him out of the medals. The winner that day, Aussie Tom Slingsby, has won five of the past six Laser World titles, but has only a 22nd in Beijing to show for his Olympic efforts; Goodison jawed at Slingsby post-race in a pub.
In the Star class, the current world No. 1 is the silver medalist pair from Beijing, Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada of Brazil, a country that has won more medals in sailing than in any other sport. Their likely clash with Britain's Percy and Simpson, who won gold four years ago, bears particular watching. It's set for Aug. 5, the first day sailing golds will be decided, and the day Ainslie will be gunning for posterity. If Percy and Simpson were to join Ainslie in mounting a podium, the Union Jack will snap proudly in the breezes off Dorset.
Roger Hudson lives amid privilege in Cape Town, with a businessman father, David, who sailed for South Africa in the 1992 Olympics. Asenathi (Squirrel) Jim lives in Red Hill, one of the black townships outside the city. Together they're trying to do with sailing what president Nelson Mandela and Springboks captain Francois Pienaar did with rugby during the nineties -- model reconciliation and hope through sport, only in this case by literally climbing into the same boat. As a teenager Hudson had watched enthralled as Mandela presided over a new South Africa; during his own adolescence Jim joined a sailing program designed to empower kids from the townships and two years ago was named the country's Sailor of the Year. The pair hasn't been together even two years, yet they qualified in the 470 class after climbing 173 ranking spots, to 46th in the world, since June 2011.
In 1900, the year Olympic sailing was introduced, sailors competed for prize money, and two boats were disqualified for using sources other than wind to augment their speed. ... IOC chief Jacques Rogge established his Olympic cred as a solo dinghy sailor for Belgium, competing in three games (1968, '72, '76) and placing as high as 14th in Munich. ... After decades of aristocratic medalists from traditional sailing countries, Olympic windsurfing has given the arrivistes a chance: Lee Lai Shan of Hong Kong (in 1996) and Gal Fridman of Israel (in 2004) both won their countries' first individual Olympic golds in the event. ... Unless the decision is overturned -- and there has been a huge outcry to do so -- kiteboarding will replace windsurfing at the Rio Olympics in 2016. ... Also on tap for Rio is a mixed-gender catamaran class.