Ainslie: My temper cost world title and I'm living in fear of being banned
If Ben Ainslie needed any greater
motivation in his quest to strike gold at his home Olympics, then the
television camera crew who cost him a world championship in Perth before
Christmas may just have provided it.
The man who has been Olympic champion
three times and is widely regarded as the best sailor in the world
admits that he is still furious at the incident which, even now, could
cost him his place at the Olympic regatta.
Relaxed: Ainsley near His Lymington home
Ainslie, 35 on Saturday, will not discover whether he is to be robbed of the chance to go for his fourth Olympic gold on the water at Weymouth until a Royal Yacht Association inquiry to be held by the end of next month rules on the incident in Australia, when Ainslie swam from his Finnclass vessel to board a TV camera boat and remonstrate with the crew because he believed they had impeded him.
Ainslie was disqualified which, as he had been leading the world championship by eight points with just one race remaining, cost him the title. While he admits his culpability in the incident, it has left an indelible mark on him.
'It has fuelled my desire massively to put the record straight,' he said.
'It's hard for me to imagine that I could find more motivation to win my home Olympics, but I have now. I'm still ****** off and I will be until I win gold again.'
Ainslie was vilified in some quarters for his uncharacteristic loss of control and accused in others of bringing the sport into disrepute.
Flying the flag: Ben Ainslie celebrates
his Olympic gold medal at Beijing in 2008
The RYA have the power to ban Ainslie from the Olympics, although a reprimand and fine are thought more likely.
Even so, Ainslie admits to harbouring fears over the outcome.
He said: 'I hope everyone will consider what I've done in sailing, that I apologised and that a probable world title was taken away from me. But until the matter is officially closed it's always a worry.
'What happened with that TV crew had happened all year, and at Perth it became the worst situation I'd ever known in sailing. It tipped me over the edge. I just lost it. The alarm bells rang the moment I stepped on to their boat. A voice in my head said: “What the hell are you doing You shouldn't be on this boat.” That's why I was on and off in just a few seconds.
'I accept that I let myself down. But losing that world title really ****** me off. It was the worst moment of my career. What was equally disappointing was the response in certain quarters. I didn't expect the character assassination. I've apologised, the TV crew have also apologised, I've lost a world title, but I hope that's the end of it and we can all move on.
Lining up for glory: Ainslie will go for more Olympic gold
'When you're down you discover who gives you a good kick and who provides the hand to lift you back up. It has been a very difficult time for me. I have to go back a long way in my life to match such testing times. I'll admit I've slept better than in the past few weeks.'
Ainslie's passion for sailing began when he was just eight. It was Christmas Day and he awoke to discover a small, wooden Optimist boat rigged up and sitting in his room, after his parents had bought it for 100 from a friend.
'We lived in Cornwall and we went straight down to the beach,' recalled Ainslie.
'I sat in it in my duffel coat and wellies and my Dad pushed me out to sea. Then he said: “We're off to the pub for Christmas lunch. It's just around the next headland. Join us there.” And with that they left and I, clueless but excited, managed to work out how to steer the boat and find my way round.
'I'd never been left alone in a boat in my life, but it was the first time I felt in total control of my own destiny. There was an instant connection with the water that has never left me.'
Versatile: Ainslie in his finn dinghy at Athens in 2004
Mocked at school, partly for his shyness but mainly for a skin allergy that the sun affects to this day, it all changed when the headmaster announced at assembly that the quiet boy who used to play with boats had just returned from New Zealand as a senior world champion in the Laser radial class.
Ainslie was 15.
'I went to New Zealand on my own, stayed with a family and returned as world champion. That school assembly changed people's perception of me and attitudes towards me.
'Before, I was that kid who used to play with boats and had a skin problem. Not any more. It transformed me. The confidence I'd always lacked flooded into me. I really do owe sailing an awful lot.'
Four years later he took silver in the Laser Class at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at a Games where only his hero, Sir Steve Redgrave, alongside Sir Matthew Pinsent, won gold for Great Britain.
The Brazilian, Robert Scheidt, recognised to be the best sailor in the world at the time, beat him to the Olympic title, but in doing so unearthed a monster.
Gold standard: Ainslie struck gold in the finn class in Athens
'I was incredibly disappointed because, back then, I wondered if I'd ever get the chance to win an Olympic gold. In hindsight, if I'd won I would have been a rabbit in the headlights with the attention I would have received and I don't know how motivated I'd have been.
'As it was I was so driven, so hell bent on beating Scheidt at the Sydney Games in 2000 that I didn't enjoy a single aspect of my sailing for that four-year period. I was obsessed to the point of it being detrimental, fixated on defeating him and, both psychologically and physically, it was draining.'
Ainslie beat the king in Sydney harbour using blocking tactics that caused outrage, not only with some members of the Brazilian public who, believing Ainslie's tactics to be those of a cheat, sent death messages on the internet, which resulted in an Australian police guard for the new champion, but even with Britain's own celebrated four-minute miler, Sir Roger Bannister, who wrote of his disapproval of such 'unsporting' methods.
'That bothered me a bit, although now, ironically, it has become part and parcel of competitive racing,' said Ainslie.
'The gladiatorial, one-on- one confrontation that Scheidt and I had back then is now actively encouraged.
'God knows how I would have dealt with it if I'd lost, which I might easily have done. I remember in the penultimate race making what I thought was a catastrophic mistake which cost me 10 places and I thought, possibly, the gold. I was almost in tears talking to my coach afterwards. I kept saying to him: “I can't let this guy beat me again”.'
Hope and glory: Britain will be relying on their top sailor for a medal or two
What if he had
'Then Scheidt would have won two gold medals and I none. Worse than that, I would have had to have acknowledged that he was a better sailor than me. That would have been very hard for me to deal with. That's why, when I knew I'd beaten him, there was little celebration. There never is. People often say to me: “Why don't you look happy when you've won an Olympic gold medal” The answer is that I'm just so relieved to have pulled off what I set out to do.'
After switching to the Finn class and winning two more golds in Athens, in 2004 and Beijing four years ago, Ainslie was within weeks of doing the unthinkable and withdrawing from his home Olympics due to America's Cup commitments.
'All my life my dream was to win Olympic gold medals and to lead a successful British America's Cup team,' he said.
Twenty-odd years later and Ainslie was spearheading a British attempt at the 2013 America's Cup under the backing of Sir Keith Mills, deputy chairman of LOCOG, a commitment that looked likely to remove him from defending his own title at a once-in-a-lifetime home Olympics.
'We had 30 sailors, including Grant Zimmer, who had played a massive role in winning the last America's Cup with Alinghi, so I couldn't just turn round and say: “Actually guys, I'm off to the Olympics instead”. I was having sleepless nights and losing some hair over the issue.'
Mills's decision to withdraw the challenge in November 2010 made up Ainslie's mind. He said: 'I would have announced my decision within weeks – and it would have been to not compete at London 2012, which would have been terrible.
'Keith's withdrawal has worked out OK for me. It has given me a chance to win a fourth Olympic gold and plans are well underway to have a crack at the 2015 America's Cup.'
First, though, comes London – or Weymouth to be precise.
Will it be just another Olympics to the man who is set, RYA inquiry depending, to become the most successful Olympic sailor of all time with four golds and a silver
'It clearly isn't, but I have to try and treat it like one with the same approach, preparation and action. It will mean more – much more – than any other Olympic gold medal though.'
This is where the Perth controversy may yet play its final hand because, as if this was even possible, he is now more motivated than ever.
JP Morgan Asset Management is the title sponsor of Ben Ainslie's Olympic campaign. To watch Ben's latest behind-the-scenes video go to www.facebook.com/benainslie1977