Ben Ainslie has attracted quite a crowd. The Olympic sailor stands waiting to meet fans, some of whom have travelled hundreds of miles to see him. He greets them politely, smiling warmly and introducing everyone to his boat (called Rita). He looks the picture of composure. But don’t believe any of it. Beneath the gentle manner beats the heart of one of the most competitive sportsmen in Britain today; a true champion. Ainslie, 35, is Britain’s most successful Olympic sailor of all time. If he wins gold in London, he’ll become one of the world’s greatest Olympians.
Not that you’d know that by watching him. Sure, he looks fit, with his tall, lean frame and heavily calloused hands, but he oozes modesty. “I’m so grateful that people support me,” he says. “I love the fact that sailing is getting more and more popular. Look at these people here today. It takes your breath away.”
Ainslie’s name has become synonymous with Olympic sailing. It began when he won his one and only silver medal in 1996. He won gold in 2000, then gold in 2004 and gold again in 2008. Along the way, he has won 10 world titles and been awarded a CBE. Such is the regard in which this man is held that he was chosen to be the first person to carry the Olympic torch when it arrived in the country.
His achievements are all the greater when you consider that sailing doesn’t offer the chance to win multiple medals. The Olympic sport only allows competitors to enter one race so, unlike swimming or cycling, from which you can emerge with a pocketful of medals, he has to fight painstakingly, every four years, for each one. It’s that grit and determination that has won him a huge sponsorship deal and a legion of fans.
So, which of the Games has he enjoyed the most? “Each one has its own personality, so it’s very hard to compare them,” he says. But if he had to pick a favourite it would be Sydney in 2000. This was Ainslie in one of the most dramatic head-to-head races ever seen against Robert Scheidt, his rival for gold. Ainslie’s only chance of success was to make sure his rival ended up outside the top 20. He did it brilliantly by blocking Scheidt at the back of the fleet so ruthlessly that his rival ended up picking up penalties in an effort to get past, and lost the medal.
“That was special for me. That sort of aggressive sailing had never really happened in an Olympics with millions watching,” says Ainslie. “There were a few nasty words spoken and I’m told that after I won they were burning effigies of me in the streets of São Paulo. But I just wanted to win. It’s not a popularity contest when you’re racing.”
So, to London, then. What are his chances? “It’s sport, so you can never be sure of anything,” he says. “But I’m confident, I’m training hard (six days a week on the water, for up to five hours, as well as fitness work in the gym). It’s very exciting to be competing at home, and I guess there’s an advantage in it, but these days the teams are so professional that they have all been training in Weymouth for the last few years, so they know the waters well.”
If he wins gold in 2012, surely a knighthood will be his? A look of embarrassment sweeps across his face when I mention the prospect of Sir Ben Ainslie. “People say that to me and I’m not quite sure what to say. My job is not to get distracted, and to work hard and win. I’m here for the sailing, not for the accolades, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered when people say I should be knighted. I have to win another gold first, though, and that’s not a given, not by a long way.”