Larger-than-life joker with a very serious sailing talent

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Magnus Olsson: a life in the race
Larger-than-life joker with a very serious sailing talent
 
Everything about Magnus Olsson seemed exaggerated, from that infectious grin and relentless, boyish enthusiasm to his immense record as an ocean racer. In that sense, his reluctance to take on the role of skipper until his very last appearance seemed incongruous, but whatever position he held he exerted a massive influence on the sport of sailing and the Volvo Ocean Race in particular, proving an inspiration to generations of sailors right up until his untimely death on Saturday at the age of 64.

Olsson's first taste of the Whitbread/Volvo Ocean Race came when he joined rockstar Simon Le Bon on board Drum in 1985-86 and the hugely popular Swede was intimately involved with the Race for the rest of his life. He went on to sail on board The Card in 1989-90 and Intrum Justitia in 1993-94 before enjoying overall victory with EF Language in 1997-98. He followed that up with second place on Assa Abloy in 2001-02 before skippering Ericsson 3 in 2008-09 – his sixth and final appearance.

In 2011, he accepted a role as Legends Ambassador, an honour that meant the world to him, before taking a role as a coach with the all-female Team SCA, helping to break down barriers right to the last.

Olsson played an influential role in the Volvo Ocean Race's evolution from a corinthian adventure through to a fully professional competition.

“It’s changed a lot from the early days when you went on an adventure and you didn’t care too much about the result," he remarked at the time of the Legends Regatta in Alicante in 2011. "Then it became more of a race and it was important to at least finish and then to do well too.

“Now it's all about winning. The sailors are all top sportsmen at the top of their game. Perhaps though, that means we have lost some of the characters from the early days, but that’s where the race has gone.”

There have been few characters in the sport as engaging as Olsson.

The 2011-12 race was the first he did not compete in for more than 20 years and even in his 60s it was tough for him to accept watching from afar.

“It is really difficult for me not to be involved and I would love to be jumping aboard one of these boats. People tell me that I am too old and not nearly good enough. That is all true of course but it doesn’t stop me wanting to take part.

“I think they should have a rule in future races that each boat has to take two over-50 year olds.”

Olsson circumnavigated the globe five times before he finally found himself in charge of his own crew, something he always said he never wanted. In the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09, he and his ‘rookie’ Scandinavian team onboard Ericsson 3 survived a near sinking on leg four, suffering serious structural damage during the gale-ridden 12, leg from Singapore to Qingdao in China.

They suspended racing in order to limp into Taiwan where they made substantial repairs, finally arriving in China on the day the rest of the fleet began the next leg - the longest leg, to Rio de Janeiro.

Olsson and his team had just over an hour to load 40 days’ worth of food and diesel and set sail again on the most demanding leg of the course, chasing the teams that had left seven hours earlier. They were quickly back in contention and a brilliant tactical decision by Olsson’s young navigator, Aksel Magdahl swept them into the lead.

Passing the notorious Cape Horn at the head of the fleet, Olsson and his crew took a northerly track which gave them a comfortable win and in doing so, earned a place in the history books. "It’s unbelievable," Olsson said at the finish, where his ecstatic celebrations, arms raised and thumbs up, provided an iconic image of the race.

Iconic – a word that sums up Olsson's status with the Volvo Ocean Race just as well.

 His loss will be keenly felt.