SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil is known as a soccer powerhouse. But if Olympic medals are any measure, it might just as well be known as the country of sailing.
The South American nation has enjoyed more success on the water than in any other discipline and Robert Scheidt is one of its biggest names.
While not quite the household character in Brazil that former soccer ace Ronaldo is, he’s not far off, at least when the Olympics come along.
“Brazil has won more Olympic medals in sailing than any other sport and although Brazilians don’t know how it works 100 percent, they know it and they know the heroes,” Scheidt told Reuters in an interview in his home city of Sao Paulo.
“When we win people stop us on the streets and congratulate us. We know we’ll never be as popular as football, which is like a religion here, but we are doing what we love and we have a great level of support to help us make our dreams come true.”
Scheidt and his partner Bruno Prada are almost invincible in the Star class. The pair won seven of nine competitions last year and have been at the top of the world ranking almost non-stop since July 2010.
They are the favourites to win the gold at the summer Olympics in London.
If they do, Scheidt would become Brazil’s greatest ever Olympian, overtaking another sailor, Torben Grael, the one-time king of Star. Scheidt has two gold and two silver medals, one behind Grael’s tally of two gold, a silver and two bronze.
“I think that Robert Scheidt is among the best top 10 sailors of all time,” said Murillo Novaes, a yachting commentator for ESPN Brasil and author of a book on Grael.
“He is so good because first and foremost he has natural talent, sailing is second nature to him. Over and above that he is very disciplined and that Germanic focus is what makes him the phenomenon that he is.”
There are good reasons Brazil is a sailing powerhouse. Brazil has 4,554 miles (7,329 km) of coastline and many of the immigrants who came here over the centuries have been from sea-faring cultures in places like Portugal, Italy, and Scandinavia.
Scheidt made his name in the solo laser class, winning the world junior title in 1991 and his first Olympic gold just five years later. He dominated laser for a decade, winning eight world titles and three Olympic medals, before moving to Star with Prada in 2005.
The two classes are totally different, with Scheidt comparing Star’s larger keelboats to trucks alongside the smaller and sportier laser vessels. Scheidt and Prada quickly got the hang of them, though, and the pair took silver at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Now they believe they are in pole position to go one better.
“We have come on hugely since the silver in Beijing,” said Prada. “We are much more mature, we know the boat much better, and that makes us more confident, and as this is a psychological game too, we are much more sure of what we are doing.”
The pair are already familiar with the Olympic course at Weymouth, having sailed there four times. Last year, they took to the water on exactly the same dates the Olympic races will be held to try to anticipate conditions.
They are hoping for varying weather during the seven-day competition and will be praying for wind. Windless days drag the competitors down to the same level, Prada said. As the Brazilian pair are not specialists in any particular conditions, they feel they have the best chance if there is a bit of everything.
“We really liked Weymouth, much more than Beijing,” said Scheidt, who was given the honour of carrying the Brazilian flag into the opening ceremony four years ago.
“EUROPEANS TRAIN DIFFERENTLY”
“There are more clouds so you can see the wind easier. The wind is stronger and then there is also the chance of having a tail wind and that enables us to catch the waves, which is the way we like to sail.”
Scheidt says there are similarities between Brazilian footballers and sailors. On the water, as on the football pitch, Brazilians tend to be creative, especially compared to Europeans, who are more pragmatic.
“Europeans train differently, they train lots more short and intense regattas, whereas Brazilians do longer training, looking to use the speed of the boat,” Scheidt said.
“We know how to surf the waves and use their power. Europeans are more about tactics and the fundamentals, the start, which line to take, how to attack, how to defend. We are free-er, in part because we don’t have the same infrastructure.”
Tactics, however, might be less decisive this time around. In a bid to make sailing more accessible to a larger audience, organizers have introduced some important changes, such as putting GPS trackers on boats that allow spectators to follow the races online.
And for the Olympics, there’s an additional change that could prove pivotal. In addition to the six regattas of around four hours each, a final medal race has been introduced that is a pared-down, point-to-point run over 30 minutes. The winner gets double the points for that sprint, essentially making it a medal decider.
Scheidt and Prada are well aware of the pressure their favouritism carries. But they are not resting on their laurels.
“We have been doing this for 30 years so we know how to deal with pressure,” said Prada. “I think that the most important thing is not to think you’re the man, you need to keep working hard and that’s what we’ve been doing.”