Ben Ainslie's Olympic retirement could lift him from great to greatest

To anyone who witnessed the superhuman effort required by Ben Ainslie to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and sail his boat Rita to his fourth successive gold medal off the Weymouth coast in August, his decision to retire from Olympic sailing will not have been a surprise.

Afterwards, the most successful Olympic sailor talked of the sacrifices required to first of all make the team and then haul himself back into contention for a record-breaking fourth consecutive win, to add to a silver from his first Games in Atlanta.

Some were beginning to write Ainslie off when, suffering from recurrent injuries and lying behind the Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen in the Finn class after six races, the sheer determination and bloody mindedness that had been a hallmark of his sailing career helped him secure victory amid jubilant flag-waving scenes.

It was a battle that recalled his epic rivalry with the Robert Scheidt in his first two Games, competing in the Star class. Having narrowly lost out at his first Games in Atlanta as a 19-year-old, he then overcame the Brazilian four years later following a titanic tussle.

"His career been marked by application and determination from such a young age. That was one of the best races [in Sydney] that anyone can remember. I can remember being lifted head high from the slipway," said Team GB's Olympic sailing manager Stephen Park, linking his first Olympic gold and his last.

"That's the mark of a true champion, even when things aren't going your way to come back and win. Six races down in this Games, some people were thinking it was the end. The level of determination and application has been pretty crucial. The level of passion has been incredible."

It is perhaps only now that he has announced his retirement from the Olympic version of the sport that the magnitude of his achievement will be appreciated. Denied the multiple medals on offer in other sports, and facing a huge battle every four years to claim the single spot on offer in his class, Ainslie's run of medals across five Games ensures he must feature alongside Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes and Bradley Wiggins in any debate over Britain's greatest ever Olympian.

Perhaps because it is always geographically distant from the heart of the action, Ainslie's achievements haven't always received the recognition they deserved, although the International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge – himself a former Olympic sailor – has always singled out his achievements for praise.

"When I look back there are so many special memories, from that first medal in Atlanta 16 years ago to carrying the flag at the closing ceremony in London 2012," said Ainslie. "London was an incredibly special Olympics, competing on home waters and in front of a home crowd, I don't think anything will be able to top that experience. But you have to move forward and it is time to move on to the next challenge in my career."Ainslie faced an uphill struggle to even book his spot at the Games, a feat that he likened to winning Olympic gold given that he had to see off rivals that were ranked one and two in the world in his class at the time in Ed Wright and Giles Scot. Coming back to target the London Olympics after an ill starred attempt to target the America's Cup foundered, he had to put on 9kg to overhaul his younger, stronger rivals.

Not a natural self-publicist, Ainslie was nevertheless determined to wring every last drop from a home Games. He presented himself at Land's End before dawn to become the first of 8,000 carriers of the Olympic torch shortly after winning the Finn world championships in his native Falmouth and was handed the honour of carrying the Union flag at the closing ceremony.

But for Ainslie, it was always the competition that came first. Other sailors may have been stronger, but none wanted victory more.

Often described as diffidently charming off the water - to the point of shyness early in his career - and a cold eyed "killer" on it, Ainslie's passion on the water sometimes boiled over.

At the world championships in Perth at the turn of the year he furiously boarded a media boat that he believed had impeded his progress - an incident that at one stage looked as though it might cost him his participation in the Games.

"He has had once or twice when that passion for winning has perhaps overflowed, but he's been quick to stand up and be counted and not hidden. The federation awarding him with the world sailor of the year award, less than a year after some of those people wanted to make an example of him, is testatment to his character," said Park.

Ainslie will now turn his attention to the America's Cup. After one of his rivals for Sports Personality of the Year, Wiggins, broke one longstanding sporting hoodoo when he became the first Briton to win the Tour de France, Ainslie will seek to shatter an even older record.

The 35-year-old, who began sailing at eight in a "duffel coat and wellies" off the Cornwall coast, will skipper a 45-foot wing-sailed catamaran in the remaining regattas in the America's Cup World Series and then will sail with the defending America's Cup champion, Oracle Racing, in the 34th edition on San Francisco Bay in 2013. Ainslie's goal is to then to secure enough backing to launch a British challenge for the 35th staging of the event. "The America's Cup has always been a goal for me," said Ainslie, who will surely be knighted in the New Year's Honour's list.

"With the new format of the America's Cup World Series and the increased commercialisation of the event, I feel confident that we can continue to build toward creating a commercially viable team, with the ultimate goal of challenging for the 35th America's Cup."His announcement on Tuesday was partly aimed at the sponsors he'll need to compete, assuring them that his entire focus would be on the America's Cup and attempting to become the first British team to win the Cup, which began in 1851 when the schooner America beat a fleet of British ships around the Isle of Wight.

"It is the oldest sporting trophy that Britain has never won. If he managed to pull that off then he would be indisputably the best sailor of all time," said Park.

Powered by article was written by Owen Gibson, for The Guardian on Tuesday 27th November 2012 16.57 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Fighting Irish 1977

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