Striving for Olympic Gold – a Weatherman’s Perspective

Striving for Olympic Gold – a Weatherman’s Perspective

Author: Bruce Buckley, Principal Climate Research Analyst, Insurance Australia Group and Team Meteorologist for the Australian Sailing Team
Achieving Olympic Gold is the pinnacle of achievement for athletes in many sports. The difference between winning a Gold Medal and Silver or Bronze – or none at all – is extremely small. Athletes are competing against the best of the best. One slip up in any aspect of the preparation for the competition and the chances of achieving a medal go out the window – with no second chances for most athletes as the time at the top is fleeting. I have witnessed firsthand nations’ and athletes’ efforts to win Gold from the time of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games when, in my capacity as State Manger of Weather Services for the Bureau of Meteorology in Sydney, I was involved in setting up the weather support for the organisers of the Games. This exposed me to the Olympic culture for the first time – a culture where anything short of world’s best practice is not good enough.

Nine years later I was asked to become team meteorologist for the Australian Sailing Team for the 2012 London Olympic Games campaign. There followed a four year period where I worked to understand not only the complex meteorology of the Weymouth – Portland Island region where the Olympic Sailing events were held, but also how to distil this information into a form the athletes could understand and apply when competing in rapidly changing conditions against the world’s best sailors.

The Australian Sailing Team won 3 of Australia’s 7 Gold Medals at the London Olympic Games, Australian Sailing’s best ever result. The fourth was oh-so-close when the helmswomen in the Australian Women’s Match Racing Team slipped off the back of her yacht which was leading during the final leg of the medal race in sight of the finish line. Within a split second gold turned into silver – an excellent result but one that highlighted how absolutely everything has to be right for the pinnacle to be reached. Even one thing going wrong is one too many. Then we picked up another Gold medal in the equally challenging Paralympic Sailing.

Australian 470 mens team – Matt Belcher and Will Ryan.
Each and every one of the Olympic athletes has a comprehensive support network – starting with the families of the athletes that supported them through all the years of training and heartbreak in the decade or more it takes to reach Olympic standard. In the case of sailing you have to be ranked in the world’s top 10 to become a part of the Australian Olympic Sailing Team. Then there are the dedicated coaches who fine tune the athlete’s performance and tactics, each a past Olympian in their own right. Without an extremely experienced coach an athlete with brilliant raw sailing talent but without highly tuned knowledge of race tactics will not achieve a podium place.

The athletes’ physical and mental conditioning is handled by specialist dieticians, sports physicians, physiotherapists and a team psychologist. Sailors can be on the water for 12 hours at a time, day after day. In the case of the London Olympics the weather for the sailing competition reminded me more of the Perth winter than the months of summer. So without a very strong and resilient physique the athletes would fail to maintain their top performance levels through the week long qualification round. Having the mental and physical endurance to continue when things are not going in your favour can make the difference between winning a medal or nothing.

Then there are the technical crew – of which I am a part. Here we have the boat specialist – able to return a yacht into top racing form overnight when it limps into shore with a hole punched into its side from an over-eager competitor, or with broken rigging or a torn sail. There is also a rules expert – as the jostling at the start and around marks can push the limits of what is allowed in the spirit of sailing. Then there is the weatherman – that is me.

Bruce Buckley holding the Australian flag as part of the the Australian Olympic Sailing Team in London.
In Weymouth we were up against the formidable British Sailing Team on their home waters. They had seven instrumented weather boats patrolling the expansive waters, gathering all the data and meteorological intelligence they could. The Aussies had me - racing around in a rubber coach boat with my anemometer trying to identify and understand the myriad of local effects that occurred across the six courses they were using for the Games. I also used other weather stations around the region and other data sources – anything that would help me understand the complexities of the weather at the smallest of scales – the ultimate challenge for a weatherman. This was not a case of forecasting for an entire city – this was forecasting wind effects across hundreds of metres and in the order of minutes. Using this knowledge and working with the numerical modellers from Europe and Australia I tried to develop a good understanding of what was going on with the weather, why it was happening, and most importantly – what would happen next.

A thorough educational program was given to the athletes so that they could also understand what was happening to the weather, how to look around and recognise signs it was about to change – and when it was going to change. Having the ability to give the sailors a final piece of weather advice just as they were launching to head out to their event meant their weather knowledge was as complete as it could be. And it showed in the results with our team beating other sailors with many more years sailing experience on those waters.

And since the focus has moved from Weymouth to Rio the whole process has been repeated. Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful location but those beautiful mountains, bays and islands make Weymouth look like a sailor’s kindergarten. There are so many more things affecting the winds and currents across the Rio Olympic courses that it has been a real challenge identifying them then understanding what are their causes. Rio is also a much more expensive place to run an Olympic campaign. For the London Olympic campaign I went to the regatta area 7 times to learn what can happen to the weather. For the Rio Olympics this coming August will only be my third time there trying to unravel the mysteries of the weather. This time I will be assisted by a long-time friend of mine, Manfred Greitschus, a fellow meteorologist working for Virgin Airlines, who will help to share the forecasting load with me – as the days typically start at 5AM and run through to 10PM with no rest days in between. Time will tell how successful the Australian Sailing Team will be in Rio but we still have that compelling drive to aim for Gold and not be put off by challenges experienced on and off the water (and in the water in the case of Rio harbour).

We can all learn from the examples set by our Olympic athletes around the strength and discipline it takes to achieve excellence. Most importantly, it is the underlying network of support that will ultimately make or break success.

About the Author

Bruce Buckley has been Principal Climate Research Analyst with Insurance Australia Group for over 7 years. Bruce has also been team meteorologist for the Australian Sailing Team for the London and now Rio Olympic Games.

Prior to joining the IAG team, Bruce spent 30 years at the Bureau of Meteorology in the Perth, Melbourne and Sydney Offices in various senior roles, including spending more than 10 years at the Perth Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre. Bruce is co-author of 5 books and author of around 20 scientific publications.