'Sir Ben' is king of the waves: Ainslie wins fourth gold to become best ever Olympic sailor
21:33 GMT, 5 August 2012
Sir Ben Ainslie, as we shall surely come to know him, is now the greatest Olympic sailor in history. But, more than that, he is as bloody-minded a competitor as British sport has ever produced.
We know that because if he was anything less, he would not have won his fourth consecutive gold medal in the light breeze off Weymouth on Sunday. The story of his success at these Games is of a man who found the right answer to the most difficult question of his life.
It was asked of him in the middle of last week when he had lost the first six of the 11-race Finn regatta to the Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen. At that point, Ainslie turned his eyes upon himself and discovered the heart to fight back.
Flare player: Ainslie celebrates his fourth Olympic gold
On Thursday, on the fourth day of racing, he finally won his first race. He then vented his anger at Hogh-Christensen and Holland’s Pieter-Jan Postma for calling a foul on him for allegedly touching a buoy. He accused them of ‘ganging up’.
He was in a corner and baring his teeth. Making him angry is a mistake, he said. So it inevitably proved, that indefatigable spirit to the fore until he was standing up in his boat on Sunday, holding two orange flares and soaking up the acclaim of more than 5,000 on the crowded Nothe peninsula.
But, my goodness, it took a tense final race to settle it. The situation was this: he had to beat Hogh-Christensen for gold. Would he concentrate on his one rival, handcuffing him by sailing in his way That was the tactic he employed with such ruthless brilliance in Sydney in 2000 in another epic duel, against the Brazilian Robert Scheidt. But there was a complicating factor here: Postma also had a mathematical chance of winning gold.
Neck and neck: Ainslie and Hogh-Christensen battle for position
So how to cover both bases Before the start, Ainslie circled Hogh-Christensen like a bird of prey. The Dane hid behind the committee boat, frustrating Ainslie’s tactic, and then made the better start. Ainslie, though, reached the first turn ahead. He never let the advantage slip.
All was well, then No, suddenly, Postma was closing in on second place and that meant Ainslie would be pipped to gold. We held our breath, the Nothe crowd sighed.
But dramatically, thankfully, Postma lost out on the final turn as he tangled with the New Zealander Dan Slater and was forced to do a penalty turn. Postman finished fifth, Ainslie was ninth and the Dane 10th. Ainslie had triumphed.
On the water, he celebrated with his coach David Howlett, the Arsenal-mad guru whose sage technical advice and unflappable manner Ainslie paid generous tribute.
Golden moment: Ainslie punches the air as he realises he has won
This was a gold medal Ainslie had no right to win. He had to pile on the weight to meet the physical demands of a fleet dominated by bigger men.
He also had to nurse his 35-year-old body through pain. I have interviewed him on the physio’s bench and seen his weary, heavy-limbed walk.
Yes, he needed a physio and recent back surgery but not a sports psychologist. His view was that he knew more about how to prepare than some jumped-up shrink. How refreshing. If, as he admitted, the expectation of a home Games had caused him sleepless nights, he would deal with it.
His mindset for the demands of high-delivery sport is perfect: his fear of failure matches his desire to win. When asked, he could never be sure which was the greater motivation. I suspect the former marginally, but who knows Whatever the mix, his Olympic story is remarkable.
Silver lining: Ainslie won silver in the Laser class at Atlanta 1996 as a 19-year-old
Golden moment: Ainslie with Iain Percy at Sydney 2000
Winning habit: Ainslie celebrates another gold medal in Athens
Three and easy: Ainslie with his Beijing 2008 medal
His sport, unlike some others, did not permit him to win more than one medal at any single Games. His longevity of success is unmatched by any British Olympian other than the rowing knights Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matt Pinsent.
Ainslie’s odyssey started in Atlanta with silver in 1996 and continued with the four golds in two different classes. His extra silver now gives him the edge over Dane Paul Elvstrom as the most decorated Olympic sailor of all time.
Ainslie said ‘Never say never’, as Redgrave famously had before returning to compete for a fifth gold, but intimated that this was the end of his Olympic participation. ‘It’s killing my body,’ he added. ‘I want to go out at the top at my home Olympics. You can’t beat that.’ It had been a long journey from his Swallows and Amazons upbringing in Cornwall.
He will now pursue his America’s Cup ambitions with BMW Oracle next year, and hopefully with his own newly formed team in 2015. We wish this most English of Englishmen luck with those endeavours.
We salute you Ben for your manners off the water and your over-my-dead-f****** – body approach on it.
Flying the flag: Ainslie was jubilant after his success
BEN AINSLIE FACTFILE
1977: Born on February 5 in Macclesfield, Lancashire. His father, Roddy, sailed in the first Whitbread Round the World Race.
1996: Having won the European Championships and finished third in the Laser World Championships, he goes on to win silver at the Olympic Games in Atlanta aged 19.
1997: Finishes third in the Laser World Championships and takes bronze at the European Championships.
1998: Wins both the Laser European and World Championships.
1999: Ainslie is named British Yachtsmen of the Year and World Sailor of the Year, having won the Europeans and World Championships yet again.
2000: Sees off competition from Brazil's Robert Scheidt to win Laser gold at the Sydney Olympics. Also wins Laser Europeans and finishes third in the Laser World Championships. Named British Yachtsmen of the Year and made MBE in New Year Honours list.
2002: After spending 14 months with the 'One World Challenge' America's Cup campaign, Ainslie moves to the Finn class. He wins the first of what prove to be many World Championships in the division and takes the Finn Europeans. Becomes British Yachtsmen of the Year and World Sailor of the Year.
2003: Takes another Finn Gold Cup and another Finn European crown.
2004: Ainslie's dominance of the Finn class continues as he wins a second Olympic gold medal in Athens, Greece. Also takes the World and European crowns as he is named British Yachtsmen of the Year for a fourth time. Inducted into the Finn Hall of Fame.
2005: Ainslie racks up a fourth successive Finn Gold Cup and receives OBE. He also wins the Finn Europeans.
2008: After re-entering the America's Cup arena with Emirates Team New Zealand, he returns to the Olympic circuit to win an unprecedented fifth world title, European title and Olympic gold in Qingdao, China. He is named British Yachtsmen of the Year for a fifth time, World Sailor of the Year yet again and made CBE.
2011: Fights off tough competition to be selected for the British sailing squad in the Finn class. Year ends in controversy at the ISAF World Championships in Perth, Australia, where he is involved in an altercation with a media boat.
2012: In January launches Ben Ainslie Racing, a new team that will initially compete in the next edition of the America's Cup World Series along with plans to join ORACLE Racing for the defence of the 34th America's Cup. Having recovered from back surgery, he wins the Finn Gold Cup for a record sixth time in Falmouth, Cornwall.
August 5 – Wins fourth Olympic gold medal, triumphing in the Finn class on home waters off Weymouth at the London 2012 Games. With four golds and a silver, Ainslie becomes the most successful sailor in Olympic history.