The British sailing team's performance at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta was respectable – two silver medals, one of them won by a promising teenager called Ben Ainslie – but for a proud seafaring nation it was hardly exceptional.
Since then the transformation has been dramatic. Britain's team has headed the medals table in Sydney (to the chagrin of the Australians, who fancy themselves as pretty good sailors), Athens and Beijing.
The 16 sailors who will take to the waters off Weymouth and Portland during London 2012 have realistic chances of winning medals in every one of the 10 Olympic classes. The target is for four but with a fair wind and bit of luck the haul could be even more handsome.
Put simply, in less than 20 years British sailing has gone from being a sport largely pursued and coached by keen part-timers to one dominated by steely professionals. An organisation that other nations watch with envy and try to copy.
"Up to Atlanta, sailing was an amateurish sport," says John Derbyshire, the performance director for the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), the sport's governing body. "People went sailing as a hobby then in the last six months before the Games they might put their job on hold to take part."
Similarly, many of the backroom boys and girls, the coaches, the doctors, the technicians, had day jobs and would take leave to help the Olympic athletes out. The lack of a professional system meant that knowledge and experience was lost after every Games. Sailors would invest so much of their own resources into an Olympic campaign that often they did not feel inclined to pass it on. It simply was not in their interest to do so as it could help a rival out.
Injuries were also a problem. Derbyshire, who managed the team at Atlanta, estimates that half of them went into the Games not fully fit: "The British attitude was that you would shake it off." Often they just could not and performances suffered.
All this meant that sailors had an excuse if they failed. "It was too windy or not windy enough. The attitude was that there would always be a next time," says Derbyshire. "It was a bit like the English football team."
The sea change came in 1997, when lottery money was ploughed into the sport. The funds meant that elite athletes could focus full-time on their sailing. Money was invested into making sure that the team has access to the very best coaches, doctors, psychologists, managers, logistics experts.
Sailors' performances began to be formally reviewed every three months. Now if they do not come up to scratch they are in danger of losing their funding. If they are injured they receive the best treatment. And if they are carrying injuries that cannot be managed, they are not picked for the team. The ethos is simple and can feel a little brutal: Perform or lose funding. No excuses are tolerated.
"It's a bit like being in the army," said one member of Team GB who preferred not to be named for fear a court martial would follow. Another sailor described it as an "awesome machine".
Team GB is split into three sections – the development squad for younger sailors just finding their feet, the transitional squad and, finally, the performance squad whose sole aim is the Olympics. Between 60 and 70 sailors are funded full-time. The very best can expect to receive around £40,000 of lottery funding.
On top of this, the RYA contributes towards the cost of training and competition. Grants are also provided so that sailors can get the best equipment. They own their boats, which encourages them to look after them, and can sell them on. The top sailors do well out of sponsorship but nobody, not even the three-times Olympic gold medal winner Ainslie, gets footballer-rich from sailing.
The squad-system means that the younger sailors get a chance to train alongside the elite, and the top sailors are always looking over their shoulders wondering who is in their slipstream. And the strength of depth in some events is startling.
Take Ainslie's Finn class. GB has five of the world's top 10 sailors in the heavyweight dinghy class. Only one can qualify for the Games. The job of the remainder since Ainslie was picked has been two-fold: to ready themselves to challenge for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but also to train with Ainslie to maximise his chances of a gold medal in 2012. Even if they would prefer not to help, they know they would risk losing their funding if they declined to support him.
All this is not to say the squads are glum places to be. Most are good friends and celebrate each other's victories. When they are not competing or training, they often go sailing together for fun.
The RYA's attention to detail is remarkable. Team GB sailors will not be staying at the Olympic village in Weymouth and Portland, but 200 yards away in their own accommodation block. They will not eat with rivals but will have their meals cooked by their own chef under the guidance of in-house nutritionists. When noisy seagulls disturbed the sleep of British sailors as they worked towards London 2012, a falcon – Felix – was drafted in to scare them away. Little is left to chance when it comes to preparation.
Outside of competition, sailors are often taking part in a variety of training camps, sometimes in Weymouth and Portland, sometimes in Palma, Majorca. It is not just about spending time on the water. The gym is vital but cycling is also a major part of conditioning, with some team members pedalling 120 miles a week in the off-season. This is no nine-to-five job.
After a day on the water, in the gym or on the road, squad members spend training-camp evenings in classrooms attending lectures by specialists on subjects such as rules, meteorology (the team has a full-time weather expert), tactics and nutrition.
Team GB has set about turning the art of sailing into a science. It has engineers who try to help the sailors make tiny adjustments to their sails, and boats that could save vital seconds in a medal race. It has analysts who use video and satellite technology to log performances. The aim is to hang on to every scrap of information. Details of venues, equipment, team members, rivals and the weather are collated and kept.
"We recycle everything, nothing is lost," says Derbyshire. The team even has a lifestyle adviser who counsels sailors on how to organise their lives while they are competing – and how to make sure they have useful skills when they return to "civvy street".
The sailing coaches are not insular. They spend time learning from their counterparts in other sports but also with experts in companies and organisations ranging from the McLaren Formula 1 team to Google and the Red Arrows. And they are always looking ahead. The team has already scouted out the venue for Rio 2016 and will make sure the Brazilians are well looked after when they arrive in Weymouth in the hope they will reciprocate.
Further down the pyramid, the RYA is investing heavily in junior and youth sailing, ploughing money into schemes to make sure that if there is another Ben Ainslie out there he or she will get the chance to shine. Its OnBoard scheme aims to introduce sailing to half a million children over 10 years.
The RYA has put in place solid systems to make sure talent is spotted and developed. Managing the Olympic team for London 2012 is Stephen 'Sparky' Park, a former Scottish schools champion who took part in Olympic campaigns for the 1992 and 1996 Games. He knows that it will be hard to keep ahead of the other nations. "Unfortunately, when you are regularly the top performer, everyone is looking to knock you off your perch and looking at what you are doing," Park says.
The British sailors will have some home advantage at London 2012, though Weymouth and Portland have not been closed off to other countries. With his "purely competitive head" on Park is unhappy with this. "It's the worst thing ever, they should stop them at the English Channel so we can maximise our advantage. But from a whole sport perspective we want this to be a fantastic Games and want people to feel comfortable here."
Park hopes the 2012 Games will open the sport up to more people and help put to bed once and for all the notion that it is a pursuit for the well-heeled. "Historically it was a sport for the better-off," Park said. "Now its quite different. My daughter is seven, she goes sailing for a whole Saturday at the local club and it's a lot cheaper than for a one-hour tennis lesson. The opportunities to get involved are greater."
Park believes sailing appeals to something deep in the British psyche. "We are a great seafaring nation. We are an island nation. I also think that sailing still is a mix of technical, tactical, scientific skills. I think the British have always been great engineers. A lot of aspects come together in sailing. It's not just about being physically the best, mechanically the best, it's about all of those things coming together and being able to blend them all, process them and come to the right answer."
Ben Ainslie has won three gold medals in his last three Olympics and is after a fourth at London 2012
Sydney 2000 Laser
Having won silver in the Atlanta Games in 1996, Ainslie went one better in Australia four years later, with Brazil's Robert Scheidt and Australia's Robert Blackburn forced to settle for silver and bronze medals respectively
Athens 2004 Finn
After his triumph in Sydney, Ainslie put on 35lb in order to sail in the heavier Finn boats and beat Spain's Rafael Trujillo into second place by 13 points
Beijing 2008 Finn
Ainslie became Great Britain's most successful sailor ever by winning a third gold. His closest rival was America's Zach Railey, but Ainslie's victory never looked in doubt and he ultimately finished first by 22 points
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