By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Having steered his laser through sofas, big tree branches and other floating debris in Guanabara Bay, Australian sailor and medal hopeful Tom Burton is ready to expect the unexpected when he competes at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The quality of Rio's water-ways has long been a worry for competitors and organizers alike, and some athletes have complained of stomach ailments after training at their aquatic venues.
Burton, who has trained in Rio a number of times, feels the water has improved but said his last cruise of the bay was an eye-opener.
"We were there in March and there were some floods and that made it really quite bad," Burton, the world's top-ranked laser sailor, told Reuters in an interview.
"A lot of the rubbish was getting washed out into the bay. You’d come across couches and bits and pieces of trees. It was quite bad.
"I’d be quite upset if it was like that during the Olympics. Hopefully they get onto that."
Laid-back and measured in his responses, it's hard to imagine 25-year-old Burton losing his cool about anything but the Sydney resident is dead serious about his pursuit of Olympic gold, having fought ruthlessly to snare the sole spot available in the laser class.
Australia's sailing program is hugely competitive and yielded three gold medals at London out of the entire delegation's total of seven.
Burton missed out on qualifying for London to Tom Slingsby and after helping him train, watched his team mate win the title at Weymouth.
Australia's world number two Matthew Wearn is the bridesmaid this year after losing out to Burton in a tough qualification battle.
Although laser sailors must rely on their own wits during competition, Burton has no shortage of people to turn to for advice at Rio.
Iain Jensen and Nathan Outteridge, who won gold in the 49er class at London, are on the team, along with Mathew Belcher, who won the 470 category with Malcolm Page.
Expectations for more sailing gold at Rio will be high in Australia, but Burton said the chance to continue the nation's outstanding legacy from London would be more motivating than pressure-inducing.
"It's definitely an achievement just going to Rio given Australia is one of the top sailing nations, especially in the laser," said Burton.
"A lot of guys in the team selected were guys that were there last time.
"You’re surrounded by a good bunch of guys that know how to do it and get the job done.
"It’s a nice team to be part of and a good atmosphere. I’ve just got to focus on my job and get it done."
World rankings will mean little when Burton is perched on his single-hull dinghy off the Marina da Gloria at the start of a week-long battle royale against the world's top sailors.
Burton feels the event is wide open and immediately drops the name of 43-year-old veteran Robert Scheidt, Brazil's twice Olympic laser champion, as among his biggest threats.
Burton will arrive in Rio five weeks before the opening ceremony to get more familiar with the race courses both in and out of the bay.
With competitors given boats of identical specifications, knowing the conditions will be essential and Burton said he still had plenty of homework to do.
"It’s very complex with the tide and the current, together with the shifting winds inside the bay, and having big mountains surrounding it, like Sugarloaf, it’s quite complex," he said.
"Only having one day on each of the courses, you’ve really got to perform."
Accustomed to taking long bike-rides around Sydney after training in the city's sparkling harbor, Burton admitted one of his biggest challenges in Rio might be boredom.
He has already seen most of the major tourist spots like Copacabana beach and is unlikely to wander far from his hotel due to security fears.
"It’s a bit too full-on and dangerous," he said of Rio.
"Being there for a month, it gets a little bit full-on and a little bit boring."
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)