“True legends showing true sportsmanship”: when Croatia’s sailors helped their Danish “mates for life” win gold

When Denmark’s Jonas Warrer and Martin Kirketerp saw their mast break just before the start of their medal race at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, they were in a “dark, dark, dark place”. Then some “really nice guys” turned up to help, and the Danes’ lives changed for ever…

Picture by Getty Images

Croatian sailors Pavle Kostov and Petar Cupać had a huge impact on the final standings of the men’s 49er competition at Beijing 2008, despite not participating in the medal race.

Their boat, however, did. Kostov and Cupać did not qualify for the final race of the competition but played a pivotal role in its outcome, after favourites Jonas Warrer and Martin Kirketerp of Denmark faced an uphill battle to compete when their mast broke just before the start. The Croats came to the Danes’ rescue by offering their boat as a replacement.

Winning the gold medal is pretty cool, but winning it after you were 100 per cent sure that you were out of it, that adds a bit to it.

Getty Images

In an hour, we went from the darkest place ever to the happiest place ever. Martin Kirketerp - Martin Kirketerp

“We wouldn’t have done it without the Croatians though. I’ll owe those guys a beer every time I see them for the rest of my life.”

Kirketerp and Warrer had started their Olympic debut strongly, securing a comfortable 11-point lead going into the 13th and final race. To win gold, they had to finish at least seventh in the medal race. Comfortable sailing in rough weather, they felt confident in the Yellow Sea’s strong winds.

“We just needed to go out and finish the job, and it was up to us to finish it. We weren’t dependent on the other guys, so that was obviously a nice feeling to go into a medal race with,” Kirketerp said. But you also know it’s not over yet. It’s a 49er race, it was blowing heavily and the sea state was incredibly crazy.”

On the way to the start, their race to the gold medal took an unfortunate turn: their mast broke, and with it went their dreams of glory.

“The spinnaker caught a wave and the rig just snapped, and life was kind of over at that time,” Kirketerp said.

Pavle Kostov Petar Cupać Jonas Warrer Martin Kirketerp
Picture by Getty Images

“We were in a dark, dark, dark place. We had not broken a single rig during the four years we had sailed together, and I had a hard time looking at Jonas. I just felt so dark and sad that looking at him being super sad as well would just make it even worse, so at that time it was a very silent boat drifting around on the Chinese sea. I remember the disappointment: having to face all of the people who’d been supporting us so much, feeling that we’d let them down because the rig had fallen down.”

Unable to even sail into the marina themselves, the duo were towed in by their coach, two-time Olympic soling class sailing champion Jesper Bank, who refused to give up.

“I remember him just saying, ‘Boys, just do something. It doesn’t matter – whatever – just do something, take another boat or whatever, it’s not over yet,’” Kirketerp said. Then my mind just instantly flicked from ‘you’re out’ to ‘it’s actually not over’ and ‘let’s just do something, let’s take another boat’.”

All the teams who had not qualified for the medal race had packed their boats down, apart from the Croatians.

“There were so many coincidences,” Croatia coach Ivan Bulaja said. We knew we had a couple more days there, so we had just gone to a party and thought, ‘We’ll just leave [the boat] like this and do it another day’.”

A Croatian journalist sitting beside a Danish colleague in the press room saw what had happened and called Bulaja, Kostov and Cupać to ask if they were willing to lend their skiff to the heartbroken gold-medal chasers. Preparing to watch the medal race from their hotel, the Croatian trio immediately rushed to the marina to help the Danes rig their boat.

“You needed to walk for about five to ten minutes to get to the sea, and it was already close to the start, so we decided to help them and started to run from the hotel to the boat park,” Cupać said.

Kirketerp and Warrer had already started to prepare the Croatian boat, hoping its owners would approve.

“When we were rigging the boat, I [could] see the guys running towards us, and they’re not casually jogging. They’re running fast and at that moment I don’t know if it is to help us or to stop us,” Kirketerp said. But when they arrived, the guys were just magic. There was no discussion about who would pay if we broke it. I don’t think they even said anything. They were just helping us as fast as they could, and for them it was just a natural thing to do – ‘these boys need a boat, we have a boat, they’re getting our boat’. They were true legends, really nice guys showing true sportsmanship.”

With the Croatians’ help, the boat was soon ready to sail.

Getty Images

“I had to go and get something, so I left the boat and it wasn’t at all ready, but when I came back after two minutes it was almost rigged,” Warrer said. There were the Croatians and all of these people helping us, rigging the boat at super speed. And at that point I just started thinking ‘OK, it might be possible to sail this race’.”

Before the Croatians returned to their hotel room to watch the race, Bulaja’s strongest memory from that day was when the Danes sailed away with their new boat.

“There were maybe 10 people helping them to rig everything to get out as quick as possible, and as they were launching and sailing out everybody on the shoreline was cheering and applauding them, hoping they would make it out on time, and there was a feeling like they’d somehow already won,” he said.

For the two competitors, a medal was still far away. First, they had to make it to the start on time. Had they reached the start five minutes after their competitors had left, the Danes would not have been allowed to race. The clock was ticking.

“It was like in a movie. As soon as we left the marina, I could hear the starting whistle going and see the start,” Kirketerp said. There were approximately four minutes to the starting line, and we crossed it 4 minutes and 57 seconds after that. That is luck as well. We were very unlucky breaking the rig, but these three/four seconds were life-changing. That was magic. Unbelievable.”

Pavle Kostov Petar Cupać Jonas Warrer Martin Kirketerp
Picture by Getty Images

The Croatian boat was set for calmer winds and, while the other teams minutes ahead of them were going for the win, Kirketerp and Warrer focused on staying afloat.

“We could see that a lot of the other guys were flipping the boats over, capsizing all of the time, and we were like, ‘We don’t actually need to win this race’, Kirketerp said. Every time there’s one or two boats that don’t use the spinnaker on the downwind. They do not win the race but they always finish magically high, like the top third of the fleet, and we were like, ‘If we can just catch a few guys, that’s good enough for us’. It was a chaotic medal race, and in those conditions you can only look into your own boat and survive the race. And we didn’t want to break another rig. The only tactics you have is to keep your tip upright. That’s the best thing you can do.”

Catching sight of the scoreboard at the end of the race, they realised they had managed to take seventh place – and the gold medal.

“That was the best board I’ve ever seen in my life,” Kirketerp said. “Unfortunately it’s probably unbeatable, that feeling in the body. This is definitely something that you can take inspiration from when you’re in a dark place: that it’s not over until it is really, really, really over. Think outside the box and do whatever it takes – within the rules, of course.”

Pavle Kostov Petar Cupać Jonas Warrer Martin Kirketerp
Picture by Getty Images

Back home, Warrer and Kirketerp had lifted themselves and their sport to a new level of fame. Their achievement was matched among the Danish team at Beijing 2008 only by the men’s lightweight coxless fours rowing quartet.

“When we came back, it was just crazy. Everybody knew what a 49er was and everyone was interested in sailing,” Warrer said. Today, people come to me and say things such as, ‘I remember where I was that Sunday, and it was just amazing’. So that’s of course huge, and that is because of that day and all of these things.”

Warrer and Kirketerp will never forget the help they got from the Croatians, who were flown in to surprise them at a gala ceremony in Herning, Denmark, in January 2009.

With the gold medallists centre-stage, receiving an award for best Danish sports achievement, Kostov and Cupać entered, raising a Croatian Olympic 49er sail in the middle of the exhibition hall.

Pavle Kostov Petar Cupać Jonas Warrer Martin Kirketerp
Picture by Getty Images

“Everybody is just standing on their feet, clapping and cheering for the Croatian guys. It was a magic moment. It’s hard to talk about it without being emotional, to be honest,” Kirketerp said. That is one of the biggest moments of my life. We had massive parties with them. All the sailors were celebrating the Croatians. I don’t think that they needed to have any money for beers in their own pockets for the following weeks. We are mates for life. We were good mates before, but they mean something very, very special to us. They’re stand-up good guys.”

The three Croatians were awarded the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin medal for fair play, named after the former IOC President and the founder of the modern Olympic Games.

“It’s a great honour,” Bulaja said. They say that it’s quite a valuable prize, but I don’t have a feeling like we were doing anything special. It’s something you would do on a daily basis, and something you do with friends and family. Between the sailors, if someone needs a spare part or whatever, it’s like a community. Everybody helps out. If something breaks on someone else’s boat, you feel the pain because you know how it is when it happens to your sailors or to yourselves.”

Impressed by how the Danes managed to get a result with a completely different boat, Cupać also hopes anyone would have done the same.

“They had such bad luck – when you break your mast and a four-year dream goes away just because of material things. So we were pretty happy that we managed to help them and that they managed to win this,” he said.

The Danes and the Croatians still meet at sailing events, connected by the dramatic day of sailing on 17 August 2008.

“If it wasn’t for them, none of this would’ve happened,” Warrer said. “They could’ve easily said, ‘You can’t just take our boat’ and that would’ve of course been OK. So the fact that they just said, ‘OK, no problem’ and even helped us rig the boat, that is amazing sportsmanship.”