In the latest of our #olympicthursday series profiling leading British Olympic hopes in the build-up to the Games, BBC Sport’s Rob Hodgetts speaks to sailor Ben Ainslie.
Three-times Olympic champion Ben Ainslie says it would feel ‘amazing’ if he could win a fourth gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
If Ben Ainslie fails to win a gold medal this summer, something will have gone drastically wrong.
The 34-year-old will go into the 2012 Games as the red-hot favourite to claim a fourth straight Olympic sailing title.
If Ainslie should triumph in Weymouth, to add to the silver medal he won on his debut in 1996, he will become the most successful Olympic sailor ever, surpassing Dane Paul Elvstrom’s four golds.
In Britain’s Olympic medal tally it would put him alongside rowing great Sir Matthew Pinsent and just one gold behind national treasure Sir Steve Redgrave. Cyclist Sir Chris Hoy will renew his Olympic quest this summer on four golds, three of which came in Beijing.
Five-time Olympic champion and BBC Sport analyst
The Olympics puts pressure on you so knowing you’ve coped with that before and achieved that eases it in some ways. But when you are going for a milestone it can be a weight on your mind. I remember in Barcelona in 1992 I struggled with the pressure, especially when I was given the honour of carrying the Union Flag at the opening ceremony. But looking back through history there was a guy called Jack Beresford who was carrying the flag and going for a third gold in Berlin, so I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can.’ If you can mentally put yourself in that state of mind then it gives you an advantage
“To win selection to the national team is pretty tough and then to win a medal is even tougher,” Redgrave tells BBC Sport. “But to do it over several Games is pretty incredible.
“Ben is already one of our icons and whatever he does this year – and I think he will win – hopefully he’ll get the recognition he deserves.”
A knighthood for Ainslie, then, seems a very likely prospect. Ever the pragmatist, he won’t even be drawn in.
“It would be a huge honour but those sorts of thoughts don’t interest me right now,” Ainslie tells BBC Sport.
“Whether it’s your first Olympics or your last one – I’m not saying it is my last one, by the way – it’s a process, going through the preparation and focusing on doing as well as you can. You don’t think about what might happen if you do well or not.”
Ainslie, though, enters Olympic year under a cloud. An incident of “gross misconduct” cost Ainslie an almost certain sixth Finn world title in Perth, Australia, in December after he boarded a media boat and remonstrated with the crew, incensed at their proximity to the racetrack.
Ainslie’s Olympic history
- 2008 – gold (Finn)
- 2004 – gold (Finn)
- 2000 – gold (Laser)
- 1996 – silver (Laser)
He was disqualified from two races and, despite having built a sizeable lead with no results worse than third in the first eight races, he could not qualify for the medal-race finale, finishing 11th.
“Obviously I regret what happened,” said Ainslie, who admits the “red mist” overcame him. “It was very unfortunate but in 25 years’ racing at the highest level I’ve never seen anything like it. It was very disappointing for everyone concerned.”
Ainslie now faces a further tribunal – an independent panel convened by the Royal Yachting Association – in February. In theory, he could be banned from the Olympics but it is unlikely to come to that.
Ironically, the title went to Ainslie’s countryman Giles Scott. The 24-year-old is the very man that Ainslie fought off in possibly his toughest selection battle yet to retain the one Finn berth in the Olympic squad after a spell away in the America’s Cup.
GB OLYMPIC SAILING MANAGER STEPHEN PARK
“I think of him like a character from The Matrix. He’s able to see the wind and weather unlike anybody else. He’s got that very special natural talent. He’s one of those sportsmen that can put it together at the right time. The best races of Ben’s I’ve watched are really where he’s had a poor start and gone around the first mark in 20th but ends up winning. That, backed up with absolutely unmatched determination and passion to win, make him the great sportsman he is.”
With no Scott in Weymouth, Ainslie’s task is perhaps that bit easier. His international rivals, though, might see his Aussie antics as a sign they can get under his skin. He insists it has only strengthened his resolve.
“Aside from the incident that was one of the best performances of my career,” said Ainslie. “That venue was the worst possible venue for me, being one of the smallest guys in the fleet. I got myself into a position where I had a very strong lead.
“So, no, absolutely not. I think the others will think they were pretty lucky to get away with that. I’m certainly taking nothing away from Giles Scott, he fully deserved to win that world title. I’m very proud of him. But I was incredibly happy with my performance.”
Ainslie’s reputation as a single-minded competitor has always belied his onshore persona. His dad Roddy describes him as a “placid, ordinary bloke – until he has got a tiller in his hands”.
GB Olympic sailing manager Stephen Park agrees: “Ben is considerate and thoughtful onshore, people see him as a gentle giant.
Five-time Olympic champion and BBC Sport analyst
Winning multiple medals is fantastic and shows you are on your game. Ben is recognised as being the best sailor in the world and there are probably several events he could helm in but it happens in sailing he’s only allowed to do one. When Michael Johnson was asked about Michael Phelps, who won eight golds in Beijing, Johnson replied that if there were events for running sideways or backwards he, too, would have won more than he did. Multi-medallists at one Olympics always standout and that’s where Ben gets overshadowed. Chris Hoy was amazing but even he wouldn’t say it was more impressive than Ben Ainslie.
“When he’s afloat, in his environment, he’s a different animal. He’s absolutely driven and determined and nothing is going to get in his way to win. That’s what you need to do if you’re going to win time after time after time.”
Perth aside, Ainslie reckons he is mellowing, but adds: “When you’re racing you’re there to win and be successful. If you don’t care any more you’re not a sailor, you’re not a racer and you shouldn’t be doing it. It is a competition.”
Ainslie became immersed in sailing from the age of eight after his family moved from Macclesfield to near Falmouth.
His fierce drive, he says, stems from unhappy years at school in Cornwall where he was shy, unconfident and bullied. Sailing gave him his salvation.
“I think a little bit growing up I struggled at school and wasn’t that successful as a kid,” he said. “Being able to go sailing was something I seemed to be good at and it gave me confidence and an opportunity to do something with my life so I’m very grateful.”
He worked his way up through the ranks and at 18 became the youngest sailor ever selected for an Olympic squad when he got the nod to compete in the Laser class in Atlanta in 1996.
One story that captures the essence of the determined young Olympian is when he visited his friend Iain Percy, himself now a two-time gold medallist, at Bristol University. Ainslie came home from a night out and immediately went running at 1am to purge himself.
Ainslie’s other achievements
- CBE – 2009
- World sailor of the year – 1998, 2002, 2008, runner-up 2011
- Five-time Finn world champion
- Two-time Laser world champion
- Laser Radial world champion
- Five-time British yachtsman of the year
- Youth Laser world champion in 1995
“I’m a lot older now so I’m not quite as fanatical as I was in my late teens but I always wanted to be the best prepared I could,” he said. “At that stage when I was hanging out with mates who were at university there were inevitably a few parties, but I was still really conscious about wanting to be fit and ready for racing. Maybe it’s a bit extreme but that’s what I felt I needed to do.”
His dedication paid off and he won Olympic silver in Atlanta after a tense final race against Brazilian great Robert Scheidt. Ainslie had refused to bow to Scheidt’s revered status in the fleet and says he was “devastated” not to have won gold.
Revenge famously came four years later when in a nail-biting finale he boldly forced Scheidt to the back of the fleet to prevent the Brazilian from securing the finishing place he needed for gold.
Scheidt protested – an occupational hazard for the racing sailor – and the rules committee sat into the night, but eventually Ainslie was declared the winner. In Brazil they burned effigies of him and sent death threats.
Switching to the heavyweight Finn dinghy, Ainslie’s unwavering focus was again in evidence in Athens in 2004 after he fought back from a disqualification in the first race to claim gold. And he overcame the weight of expectation – he was unbeaten in the Finn in the four years since Athens – and a bout of mumps in China to claim his third Olympic title in Beijing.
On home waters this summer Ainslie will be very much a marked man. He says he would not have it any other way.
“I’d rather be the favourite than not,” he said. “The pressure and expectation has been there before but, to be honest, the expectation mostly comes from within. It’s a huge amount of work that goes into these projects so you want to make it worthwhile.”