Past Olympian: Iain MacDonald-Smith 

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Iain MacDonald-Smith made history at Mexico 1968 when, with helm Rodney Pattisson, the pair won Flying Dutchman gold with the lowest ever Olympic sailing points’ total – 3. A reserve for Munich 1972, MacDonald-Smith realised his dream of helming at an Olympics at Montreal 1976 in the Soling three-person keelboat. Now 64, Iain continues working in performance sport in a monitoring role for UK Sport and also as a British team selector for the 2010 Rolex Commodores’ Cup.


Interview with Iain MacDonald-Smith

Mexico 1968

Rodney and I went into the Games as favourites having gone through 1968 unbeaten. However we got off to the worst possible start when we were disqualified in the first race, a race we’d won, for a collision at the start. After the protest I said to a dejected Rodney I believed we could still win the title but we’d have to win the next five races and make sure the disqualification was our discard. Incredibly we managed to post five straight firsts but could still have lost it in the last race. That race ended up being the most stressful of my life. To play it ‘safe’ Rodney started at the wrong end of the line to everyone else, effectively handing them a quarter of a mile advantage. We then had to pass the whole fleet and risk collisions, protests and overlaps at the chaotic mark roundings. We crossed the line second, knowing the gold was ours, but there was no elation just massive relief. The elation came at the medal ceremony.

Our team uniforms had a naval feel and included an old fashioned yachting cap complete with peak and gold braiding. A Navy man, Rodney had spent an hour teaching me how to salute and when a Mexican brass band sparked up with the National Anthem we were trying not to burst out laughing! Our team weatherman David Houghton had tied a Union Jack to three helium weather balloons and as that went up, that was when we celebrated.David was part of an incredible team set-up we had in Mexico led by Vernon Stratton. At the pre-Olympics in 1967 he had figured out it would take five weeks to acclimatize to the heat and humidity of Acapulco so we arrived for the Olympics very early and spent weeks training and adapting to the conditions.

Working as part of a team

Vernon Stratton really understood the importance of team spirit and looked after the logistics while his wife Pepe created a home-from-home. They didn’t have funding they just made the most of getting to know the locals and relying on people’s goodwill. The resources are very different but that team ethos and organisation is still what sets British sailing apart today and is our real trump card.

I stayed in Mexico for a while as I really wanted to make the most of my whole Olympic experience. I eventually returned to England and was on the same plane as racing driver Graham Hill, who’d just won the Formula One World Championship. He was a real character and invited me to join him on the steps of the plane on arrival where we were met by a barrage of photographers. They all just wanted Graham - I was an Olympic champion but I realised that was small fry next to Formula One!

London 2012

Having the 2012 Olympics will be great for British sailing and our sailors will gain a lot of confidence from knowing the venue backwards. If we can combine the familiarity with the venue with being the best trained, the best coached and having the best equipment, it then comes down to an individual’s skill and determination. Nick Thompson looks a very exciting prospect in the Laser and I think we’ll see people rising through the ranks in the next two years. It’s very difficult to stay at the top for a long time, Ben Ainslie is quite exceptional, and that’s why I think we could see some new faces for 2012. The most exciting thing for me is who will be selected for the 49er and the novelty of women’s match racing is also fascinating. Lucy Macgregor still has a way to go but she is real potential.