Why Ben Ainslie defines essence of Olympic greatness

By Rob HodgettsBBC Sport at Weymouth

Certain individuals are marked out for greatness - and four-time Olympic champion Ben Ainslie is one of them.

It is often hard to define the essence of what makes a sportsman great, barring a look at the record books.

And in becoming the most decorated Olympic sailor in history with his fourth gold medal and fifth medal in all, Ainslie has plenty of mentions.

In trying to pin down what makes him special, two-time Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson said immediately "he works harder than anyone else".

"Whether in the gym or on the water or working on his equipment, his work-rate is better than anyone in the fleet," revealed Robertson, a team-mate of Ainslie's in three Olympics. "What's that driven by? Fear of failure, probably, fear of someone beating him.

"After that, he has always had an ability to read what's going on when other people don't. He's a phenomenal downwind sailor as well, he has fantastic feel in the boat.

"We saw him here in the waves and the breeze, surfing and pumping the boat. He has great empathy with the boat, all boats that he sails. And he's the most competitive person I know."

The 35-year-old Ainslie came into the Games with huge expectation on his shoulders but for most of the week it looked like it was also wrapped around his rudder like an anchor.

For six races he could not beat the flying Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen. The dead cert looked in trouble. But that's where the greatness lies. Like so many times in his career, Ainslie found a way to win.

"Even here when the chips were down and life was hard he found something extra. And not many people can do that," added Robertson.

The competitive drive may have its roots in his childhood. Ainslie confesses his early schooldays were difficult. Bullying is cited in his autobiography, but in sailing Ainslie found the perfect escape. And he found he was good at it.

On his Games debut as a 19-year-old in Atlanta in 1996 he dared to take on the revered Brazilian Robert Scheidt. It was close and Ainslie lost. But rather than being pleased with putting up a "good show", he was devastated. In Sydney four years later Ainslie's fierce determination and ruthless ability came to the fore again.

Golden greats

He renewed his rivalry with Scheidt and in the final race exploited all of sailing's myriad rules to contain the Brazilian at the back of the fleet. Scheidt's loss was Ainslie's gain and he clinched his first gold. It was a remarkable statement. The death threats that followed showed the hurt in Brazil.

In Athens in 2004, Ainslie again showed his single-minded focus to recover from a disqualification on day one, fired up by what he perceived as an unfair protest from a French sailor.

Beijing was slightly more straightforward, but his battle to even make the GB team for 2012 was not. Ainslie was pushed to his limits by countrymen Giles Scott and Ed Wright before gaining the nod. After that, he came to Weymouth as most people's idea of a sure thing for gold. Ainslie, though, knew differently.

"It's always hard when people are saying you are a dead cert and you're expected to win," he said. "I tried telling everyone that wasn't the case but no-one seemed to listen to me. Of course, when I wasn't doing that well the heat comes on because expectations are that you will do well, so it's a little bit frustrating, but that's the nature of being in this position."

The speed of Hogh-Christensen took many by surprise and Ainslie was forced to dig very deep.

At one point the Dane and Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma accused him of illegally hitting a mark. Ainslie disagreed but performed a penalty turn to avoid further sanctions. Back on the shore he uttered his now famous line. "They've made a big mistake. They've made me angry and you don't want to make me angry," he said.

He channelled his ire into clawing back ground on Hogh-Christensen and went into the medal race simply needing to beat the Dane, as long as Postma, third and still in with a chance of gold, didn't spoil the party. He nearly did.

Approaching the final mark Postma was in third and attacking New Zealand for second, but the Dutch sailor hit Kiwi Dan Slater's boat and had to take a penalty turn which dropped him to fifth at the finish.

"That race was one of most nerve-wracking experiences of my life," said Ainslie.

"You look back at so many times it could have gone the other way. I don't know what it is, but I'm very grateful to have come through this."

Receiving his gold medal from Princess Anne in the Dorset evening sunshine, Ainslie overtook the hugely influential Dane Paul Elvstrom, who won four golds between 1948-1960, as the most successful Olympic sailor.

"I don't think that will ever sink in," said Ainslie. "Elvstrom really revolutionised sailing. It was an amazing feat."

Comparisons between different eras are unfair, but Ainslie's achievements over 16 years are almost unparalleled. In sports where you can only win one medal per Games, it puts him on a par with Sir Matthew Pinsent on four golds and one behind Sir Steve Redgrave. A knighthood must surely follow.

For team-mate Iain Percy, his dream of a third Olympic gold in four Games slipped agonisingly from his grasp.

Percy and crew-mate Andrew Simpson led going into the Star class medal race but were edged into silver by Sweden. The pair have been friends with Ainslie since childhood and have seen him develop into an icon of the sport.

But while he might not garner the same headlines, Percy is happy with his own achievements and there are very few who can argue with two Olympic golds and a silver.

"In professional sailing people understand where the level is at and I'm pretty proud of that," he said.

Percy and Simpson are unlikely to return to the Games, given the Star's current omission from Rio 2016. Ainslie, too, says his Olympic career is over, particularly in the increasingly physical Finn class, although he adds "never say never" to cover himself.

"It's hard to see how you could get a better feeling than this," he said. "It's the best way to bow out, at a home Olympics."

If that is the end of an era, it has been a privilege to watch. Greatness doesn't come around very often.

Top Stories