Britain’s Ben Ainslie is pursuing more than a gold medal at London 2012 when he tries to match a 52-year-old record as the most-decorated Olympic sailor ever.
Ainslie, 35, is seeking a fourth consecutive gold medal when he steps into his boat “Rita” on July 29 to compete in the Finn class at this year’s games. A victory in English waters would tie him with Denmark’s Paul Elvstrom, who was Olympic champion from 1948 to 1960.
The Finn is among the oldest of the 10 sailing classes -- six for men and four for women -- that will be contested in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbor, 130 miles southwest of London, during the 2012 Olympics. Ainslie has dominated the event since 2002, winning a record six Finn World Championship Gold Cups and gold medals in Beijing and Athens. His first gold was in a lighter Laser during the Sydney games.
“The Olympic Games is a very special event,” Ainslie said in an interview in Falmouth after winning the JPMorgan Asset Management’s Finn Gold Cup. “Having said that, you do ultimately have to go out and race like you would anywhere else. You can’t let the pressure of the event get to you.”
Ainslie will compete on June 30 in the annual JPMorgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, a one-day event that circles the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. JPMorgan Asset Management is Ainslie’s main sponsor, and he also gets backing from British Airways and Volvo.
The son of a Whitbread Round the World skipper, Ainslie has decades of experience in handling competitive pressure. He began sailing off the coast of Cornwall in southwest England at the age of eight. By 16, he won the world championships in a Laser Radial, a single-handed, 14-foot sailing dingy. He won his first Olympic medal, a silver, during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 at the age of 19.
“In our sport, you can only have one athlete in one event, so Ben can’t sail in two or three events like athletes in other sports,” British Olympic Team Manager Stephen Park said in a June 13 interview in London. “Somebody who can come in and deliver in their sport, in Ben’s case across 20 years, at Olympic medalist level, they really are true Olympic champions.”
Ainslie honed his technique in Lasers through 2000 and spent 14 months sailing America’s Cup boats before transitioning into Olympic Finn sailing, a move that meant adding more than 30 pounds to his 6-foot frame. He won his first Finn World Championships in 2002.
‘Out to Win’
Ainslie is known for his single-minded, “fairly vociferous” style on the race course, Park said. During a competition in Perth, Australia, last year, he became so frustrated with a media boat he dove off his dingy and boarded the boat to confront a television crew. He was disqualified from the event though avoided further sanctions.
“I wouldn’t say I’m overly aggressive, but certainly when I’m racing, I’m out there to win,” he said. “It’s fierce. It’s a competition like any other.”
Denmark’s Jonas Hogh-Christesen, the U.S.’ Zach Railey and Croatia’s Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic are among the men to beat at the Olympics, Ainslie said. Hogh-Christesen took third place at this year’s Finn World Championships with a score of 64, while Railey placed 10th with 93. Ainslie scored 10, 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor, Great Britain’s Edward Wright.
Olympic sailors in every event other than women’s match racing compete in a series of races. Points in the first 10 are awarded according to placing, with one for first and nine for ninth. The accumulated score, minus the two worst finishes, are used to qualify for the 11th medal race. Points scored in that race are doubled and added to previous scores to determine the final result.
Sailing became an Olympic event in 1900 and has featured in every Summer Olympics since 1908. During the 1948 games, the event took place in the English Channel off the town of Torquay, 200 miles west of London. Both men and women have competed since the beginning, though specific classes have varied. This year’s games will include the men’s Finn, Star, 49er and Laser classes. The 6-meter Elliott and Laser Radial events are women-only. Both men and women will sail in RS-X and 470 classes.
Ainslie said he would consider sailing in the two-man Star class if it were included in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Winning in Brazil could make him the second Britain, alongside rower Steve Redgrave, with five gold medals.
A 2016 Chance
“We think we know what those classes are, but there is still a chance they may change very slightly,” Ainslie said. If the Star class were included, “it might give me a chance to go for 2016.”
In the meantime, Ainslie is focused on navigating the English weather to be first across the finish line in Weymouth.
“I’m happy whatever the conditions are,” he said. “You have to be that way because you can’t predict what the winds are going to be, especially in the English summers which are notoriously unpredictable. You have to be ready for anything.”