Ben Ainslie is ready for the unpredictable
Monday, 18 June 2012
Ben Ainslie is very honest about it. We are sitting in a large room in the London Hilton, one wall of which displays paintings and artworks by past and present Olympic sailors, which are to be auctioned later that evening at the quadrennial Sail for Gold Olympic send-off ball, which will be held at the hotel.
Ainslie's contribution is a picture of the sea with a patch of sand in the foreground on which the shape of the Olympic rings could be made out. "Very accomplished," I venture. The triple Olympic champion grins. "I didn't actually do it," he says. "I had this vision of the tide going out on Chesil beach, which is a landmark near the Olympic course at Weymouth, leaving the Olympic rings on the sand. I'm not too good at painting, but my physio's girlfriend was staying with us for the weekend and she is a good painter. Before I went out sailing, I told her about the scene I wanted to portray and said maybe when I come back we could work on the picture together – but when I got back she'd done it."
I mention at this point that he should not feel too bad about it, as there are artistic precedents for such an arrangement. After all, Michaelangelo got started on the roof of the Sistine Chapel under much the same understanding with his numerous painter friends in Florence. Although of course, in Michaelangelo's case, he told them all to stop it and go home after a few weeks before soldiering on alone for the next two years, living in the chapel and subsisting on onions and stale bread.
But anyway. Ainslie smiles again. He may delegate his artistic efforts, but when it comes to Olympic sailing – in which he will shortly seek another gold at the Weymouth course in the Finn class –this Olympian takes 100 per cent responsibility for his own superbly effective actions.
"You have to be able to compartmentalise the different areas you want to focus on," he says. "If I'm going racing the only thing I'm thinking about is that. I'm not thinking about the America's Cup or anything else that's going on in my life.
"The America's Cup is primarily all about the team, and the Finn sailing, although I have a great support team, is different. When I'm out there racing I'm alone, with full responsibility."
Eight years ago, soon after Ainslie had won a gold medal in the Laser class at the Sydney Games and in doing so taken his revenge over Robert Scheidt, the Brazilian whose cute tactical moves in the medal race had earned him the Olympic title ahead of the Briton four years earlier in Atlanta, he took part in a mini race at the Royal Albert Dock which offered the press the opportunity to join in.
I was "crewing" on the boat skippered by another triumphant Olympian, Iain Percy, who had won the Finn class in which Ainslie now operates. The first mini-race was won by our boat, but Percy was confident there would be an immediate response in the next from the opposition boat skippered by someone he described as "the most competitive man in the world." And of course there was.
So, Ben Ainslie. Are you the most competitive man in the world? "I guess Iain knows me pretty well, better than most people," he responds. "I think sailing is the one thing in my life that I want to try and be the best at. There's nothing else in my life where I feel like I have to be competitive. Sailing is the one thing I want to be best at, to reach the highest level I can and to achieve things, so that's why I'm so determined to do well."
Ainslie, then, is not the kind of sportsman who likes to proclaim how he hates to lose at anything, even if it is tiddlywinks. (Why is tiddlywinks the example always given? Surely nobody plays tiddlywinks these days? Anyway.)
"No, not me," he insists. "I am competitive, but nothing like I am when I'm sailing. If someone beats me at cards, or my nephew beats me at a computer game or whatever it is, I laugh about it. I just don't being beaten when I'm sailing, full stop."
Ainslie's lead-up to the Games has not been perfectly smooth. At last year's World Championships in Perth, Australia, his decision to swim across to the boat of a television crew to remonstrate with them because he felt their wake had prevented him overtaking a competitor resulted in disqualification.
Earlier this year he needed an operation for a back injury. And at this month's Sail for Gold regatta at Weymouth, the last competitive regatta before the Games, he capsised and finished in second place behind fellow Briton Giles Scott.
Then again, in between times Ainslie had regained the world title, which he has now won a record six times, and indeed had the historic distinction of becoming the first person to carry the Olympic Torch in the UK.
"I've never had an Olympic campaign that's gone perfectly smoothly," he says. "I seem to have to be able to deal with quite a lot of adversity. At the last Olympics I went down with mumps a couple of days before we were due to start racing.
"This time round I had the issue in Perth, I had a back injury at the beginning of the year which needed an operation, so they were all quite difficult things to have to deal with, but then I sometimes think these things are a test of character and you come through the other side and hopefully it makes you stronger.
"The Sail for Gold was a warm-up. We had the World Championships a couple of weeks before, which is a big one, the one you would be peaking for, but the Olympics is the ultimate goal. I'd like to have won the Sail for Gold. Giles Scott was really on great form. I certainly wasn't, but despite that to be second and to be taking on the Olympic challenges was, despite everything, not that bad."
Looking ahead to his latest Olympic challenge, there is much that is familiar to this 35-year-old icon of the Games.
"I know all the competitors – I know most of them very well," he reflects. "And it's a good fleet with a lot of camaraderie. Most of the sailors try to get on with one another, because it's a pretty lonely life otherwise. They are all really good sailors, there are a lot of challenges out there. There's probably any one of 10 sailors who could go out there on the day and win races and be a threat. So it's going to be incredibly tough.
"PJ Postma from the Netherlands - if it's windy he's going to be a strong candidate. Zach Railey of the States won the silver in Beijing, he's finding a bit of form now, Jonas Christensen of Denmark, and Ivan Gaspic from Croatia will also be ones to watch."
Ainslie will also have to keep a watch on the weather in Weymouth, which has been unpredictable. But then he is ready for the unpredictable.
"You have to be flexible," he says. "Predominantly in Weymouth we have had quite strong winds, but that means it's even more likely that when we come to the Olympics we will get some very light winds. That's just the way these things tend to happen.
"At the previous Olympics in China we had very, very light winds the whole way through, which was as expected, but the final medal race was in very strong winds. Sydney was very variable, as it was in Athens. My goal is to be able to perform in any conditions and be able to win."
The room is full of the pride of British Olympic and Paralympic sailing. Before this pre-Games media trawl began, Stephen Park, British team's Olympic manager – affectionately known as Sparky – had offered a brief summary of the prospects ahead this August.
"We are looking forward to a very exciting summer," he said. "I believe we have real medal prospects for the first time ever in all our Olympic and Paralympic classes."
Does such accomplishment have any effect upon the man who has already found the way to win one Olympic silver and three successive golds?
"I think in terms of strength in depth it is probably the strongest squad we have ever had, I'd agree with that," he says. "But I always think it's pointless talking about medal prospects, because ultimately each athlete, each team has got to go out and do it on the day. It doesn't matter how many world championships or Olympics you've won, or how you've done in the build-up. It's about performing in that event, which is why it is such a tough challenge."
As I say, when it comes down to what really matters to him, Ben Ainslie doesn't do delegation...
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.