Sailing: Golden buoy's a born winner

Ruthless, brutal, supremely confident. Ben Ainslie goes to Beijing refusing to contemplate failure
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The Independent Online

Congestion through Weymouth is enough to induce road rage. Even Ken Livingstone would be stymied by it, as you find yourself in another queue. You're late, for an Olympic champion. Yet you arrive to find Ben Ainslie is the one who is apologising when we meet at the National Sailing Academy in Portland. He has to punctuate our interview by disappearing for a live link in his role as a London 2012 ambassador. But that's the kind of man he is on shore: modest, unfailingly polite, but with an inner intensity, slightly reminiscent of a young Seb Coe.

Once on the water, though, Great Britain's talismanic Olympian is as ruthless as a cutlass-wielding pirate. Ed Wright, Britain's 2006 European champion in the Finn class, could attest to that. After Athens, he sniffed his chance. Ainslie had his eyes on the big sailing boys' toys, those America's Cup boats, and the waters were apparently clear for Wright to claim the one Olympic place in the class.

Even Ainslie concedes: "I really wasn't sure if I was going to do Beijing. I was committed to Team New Zealand [for whom he was strategist and B boat helmsman] until last year. But then I was involved with the launch, as an ambassador, for 2012, and was at Trafalgar Square in 2005 for the announcement.

"The atmosphere was electric. That was a real motivator for me. I remember thinking, 'Well, I've really got to try and be part of this. It's going to be amazing to have the Olympics in London'. So that was the spark to get more heavily involved with Beijing, and hopefully, continue on to 2012.

"I went to Qingdao [where the Olympic sailing will be held], and did the test regatta, and I thought, 'Yeah, it's good to be back, I've enjoyed this venue and the challenging conditions'."

And hence Wright's fate was sealed. Earlier this year, Ainslie asserted himself by winning four regattas in Australia, including securing an unprecedented fifth world title, in the Finn Gold Cup.

Could he find it in his heart to feel sympathy for Wright? "No, that's competition, isn't?" he retorts. "My job's to go out and win races. Ed's a great sailor and it's tough when it ends up being a showdown like that. But he was really good about it."

Wright was not the first to discover what a brutal competitor Ainslie can be. The great Brazilian Robert Scheidt was another. Ainslie defeated him for gold at Sydney in a duel that the Briton described as "like being in a boxing ring". An Athens gold followed. And now Qingdao, where competitors are promised light winds and strong currents, conditions which should suit Ainslie's talents. "It rewards experience in dealing with diffi-cult decisions," says Ainslie, who departs shortly for the European Championships in Italy.

Olympic selection offers the 31-year-old an opportunity to overtake Rodney Pattison's haul, which is the same as his own: two golds and one silver. If Ainslie continues to 2012, he could equal the four golds of his Olympic sailing hero, the Dane Paul Elstrom. Why not continue on to 2016, and equal Sir Steve Redgrave's five Olympic golds?

"People say that – but it's so far away," Ainslie says. "In the Finn, it's difficult. This class is hard work physically. By 2012 I'd be 35 and I think that would be the limit. So I don't have any plans after 2012, Olympics-wise – although that may change."

Even three Olympic golds would confer on him a new status of sporting celebrity that Ainslie would not find comfortable. "I'm a sportsman. I'd hate to be a celebrity. Recognition is important, to get sponsorship and so on, but it's not something that fits well with my character. Fortunately, I'm not a footballer. I wouldn't take too kindly to people photographing me con-stantly, snooping through my dustbin. I'm a very private person but I'm opening up more."

Enough even to mention his German girlfriend, Annette, whom he met at the America's Cup. She was working in PR, with the South African team. "She's been fantastic, really supportive. She understands the issues I have and constraints I'm under. It's working well." Ainslie will be committed to his role as skipper with Team Origin, Britain's representatives in the next America's Cup, once the Olympics are over.

Some believe it is almost a given that the name Ainslie is destined for the GB medal board at these Games. Not the man himself. "I don't really respect other sportspeople shouting off about how good they are – there's nothing I find more irritating. I much prefer those who go out, work hard and prove themselves, rather than someone who says, 'I'm the second best golfer in the world'. That really winds me up." Not a huge Ian Poulter fan, then?

He does concede: "It's easier having been to the Olympics before and been successful. You don't feel, going into it, that it may be your only chance of winning a medal, and if you don't then you've blown it."

As always, he quietly exudes supreme confidence. You can understand why news of his selection is the last thing his rivals wanted to hear. Big Ben is back, and determined to strike three.