As we look ahead to the summer’s Tokyo Olympics (starting on 24 July), we sat down with David Wilkins, Ireland’s first sailing silver medallist, to talk about Olympics past and present.
David Wilkins won a silver medal in the 1980 Olympics in the Flying Dutchman with crew James Wilkinson. He is also one of only two Irish five-time Olympians, representing Ireland at the Olympics of 1972, 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1992.
You’ve been to five Olympic Games - did you have a favourite?
My first Olympics might have been the most enjoyable (Munich 1972). The sailing was in Kiel and we were very young, only 21/22. I got onto the team by the skin of my teeth, so I was pleased to be there. We had some great races, but in the second last the wind completely died, and some of our equipment failed. We ended up falling from first to last position. I still had great fun though. The security was less tight in those days and the event felt more relaxed (of course this was the Games where 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team were killed in a terrorist attack in Munich, and changed the security measures of all future Olympic Games).
Tallinn (Moscow 1980) was obviously very special, as we got the medal there. But in 1988 (Seoul) we should have got a medal. The irony was that we trained with the UK and Canadian teams leading up to the event – every day in training we blew them away, but the Canadians won silver at the Games. Two things happened that were out of our control. The first was a container ship coming right through the course (see here) which meant we had to tack out to the wrong side of the course. Our protest was rejected by the race committee.
On another day, we were going really fast after the start and had built up a good lead. Then for no reason, we started slowing. We couldn’t work out what was going wrong. We realised that we had picked up a large plastic bag covered on our centreboard. And to make things worse, it was covered in tar. We had to capsize the boat, take off the bag, and then remove as much tar as we could from the centreboard. Unsurprisingly we went from first in the race to last.
What happened when you won the medal in 1980 ?
The Irish media were all focussed on Moscow where most of the competitions were taking place. The sailing was taking place in Tallinn (Estonia). By day 3 we were getting good results but there were only one or two Irish journalists from the Cork Examiner there. In fact, I used to write up the sailing reports on a daily basis and fax them back to the Irish Times sailing reporter. Fax machines had just been invented, and they were the only way of communication, with the occasional phone calls. The media in Moscow finally realised that Ireland might be in the running for a medal, so the journalists arrived on the final day of racing. Back in Ireland, the press turned up at my wife Gill’s doorstep to get her reaction. The problem was that they thought a sailing race would only last about 3 minutes, and were disappointed when she told them they’d have to wait for 2 hours or more for the race to finish. But once they arrived in Tallinn the media support was great – RTE even hosted a dinner for us that night. The following day, we were awarded the medal by Lord Killanin, President of the International Olympic Committee, who was Irish. He told us it was his last year as President, and the first year he’d awarded a medal to fellow Irishmen.
You can hear more from David here in a recent interview with the Olympic Federation of Ireland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E31O0YK-3tQ
And you can watch David and James Wilkinson winning their silver medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogD5qwaM-es&feature=emb_err_watch_on_yt
David Wilkins’ Olympic Games:
- 1972 Munich, Sean Whitaker (Tempest)
- 1976 Montreal, Derek Jago (Tempest)
- 1980 Moscow, James Wilkinson (Flying Dutchman)
- 1988 Seoul, Peter Kennedy (Flying Dutchman)
- 1992 Barcelona, Peter Kennedy (Flying Dutchman)