A dream that may blow Ainslie off his Olympic course

Britain's leading sailor is set on conquering the America's Cup. Stuart Alexander asks him if it will damage his chances in 2012

Britain's top sailor, the much-medalled Ben Ainslie, is a worried man. Like everyone else, he is in the dark about an event that he very much wants to win, the America's Cup. Like everyone else he is aware of stronger and stronger rumours that the next Cup will be contested in multihulls.

For a man who has every chance of a fourth consecutive Olympic gold on what are the home waters of Weymouth, the dilemma facing him has been made worse. Trying to run an Olympic campaign in parallel with being skipper of an America's Cup challenge was already hard enough.

Winning an Olympic gold is something that the whole world recognises for the rest of the winner's life. Winning the America's Cup implies subtleties of talent and management often only appreciated by those who have tried, especially those who have tried and lost. But he appears willing to place that challenge ahead of any concerns that his preparations for London 2012 could suffer as a result of a change in his focus.

Ainslie also wants to do a Volvo Ocean Race, not surprising given that his father, Roddy, did the first race when it was called the Whitbread in 1973. But the America's Cup remains the big prize he wants on his CV. If it moves into a whole new discipline, something akin to a shift from IndyCar racing to Bonneville Salt Flats speed records, then all that Ainslie has been working towards for years would evaporate.

"For that to disappear, to be made meaningless, would be frustrating for me and, for the sport in general, it would be a massive step to take the America's Cup away from monohulls and switch it to multihulls," he says.

Ainslie was always the obvious choice as skipper of Sir Keith Mills' British challenge, Team Origin, and his double Olympic gold medallist tactician Iain Percy is the other half of what is seen as a dream team. It was always agreed that Ainslie could run another Olympic campaign.

But a switch into multihulls would throw his training programme down a new path. It would affect his diary planning for the next three or four years, as a whole new sequence of regattas would come into play.

This week he is meeting the America's Cup holder, BMW Oracle, backed by billionaire Larry Ellison and masterminded by four-time winner Russell Coutts, in a series of exhibition races bolted on to Cowes Week.

In what Oracle calls a consultation process, nearly every top designer present voted against a permanent switch to multihulls. "It would turn sailing completelyon its head," said the normally ultra-diplomatic Ainslie yesterday. "If they go for a wing sail multihull, the whole of the sailing world will see that as a stitch-up."

As a monohull expert, Ainslie would have to learn a new multihull game. He has won a silver and three gold Olympic medals in singlehanded dinghies. He has served an apprenticeship in fully crewed big keelboats, with two America's Cup campaigns, where he was a more than token tune-up helmsman against Team New Zealand's Dean Barker. And he was selected to take part in the rest of the season's World Match Racing Tour, having won the last event in Marstrand, Sweden.

The America's Cup has always been the object of bitter struggle and resentment. So, behind the smiles and sporting handshakes in the Cowes Parade marquee where the Cup is on display, there has been increasing tension about the shape of the next event, leading to a long letter signed by, among others, Origin, Team New Zealand, All4One of France and Russian team Synergy.

That was followed by a 49-point memorandum. "We welcome all input," say Oracle. "They haven't even bothered to reply," say Origin.

As far as the Oracle camp is concerned, there is an almost evangelical flavour to the way progress has been made since winning the Cup in February. "Trust in Russell," is the line. "He will organise the best possible Cup."

Looked at from the other side, being left dangling without knowing when the next event will be held, in what boats and where, with a $3m bond and €1.5m entry fee due by the end of January is, opponents feel, putting them at a disadvantage.

The official line is that no choice has been made between a return to a monohull boat or whether to stick with the multihull route which decided the last Cup in February.

But the strong steer is to multihulls, in which Oracle has a head start in the development of the sort of wing sails which, and it was a brave call, took the Cup away from Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi.

At the moment there is only one official challenger, Vincenzo Onorato's Mascalzone Latino. He was openly critical of the way Alinghi treated the challengers in Valencia, his lawyer, Alessandra Pandarese, was shunned by Alinghi, and she was chairman of the challenger group.

Now Onorato, as the challenger of record, has signed up to a protocol with a clause saying the defender and challenger of record can change anything in the protocol for the event without reference to any challengers. With decisions on the date, venue and boats all due well before the end of the year, the current unrest could quickly die down, but also means that all the challengers are running out of runway. And instead of setting up a transparent, inclusive process they fear a fait accompli.

Oracle may feel they can ignore threats of collective action from a group that would struggle to present a united front. But the challengers want first a voice, then some confidence that it will have influence.

America's Cup v Olympics


* Laser and Finn classes use boats with one hull that are just 13ft or 14ft long

* Sails single handed

* Outside the Olympics, regattas will earn a sailor around £1,650 a day

America's Cup

* America's Cup may switch to multihull boats, which demand a different style of boat handling

* Ainslie's 2007 America's Cup challenge boat measured 82 feet

* Fully crewed boat means outside input and allowing time for crew to react

* Skippers (like Ainslie in Britain's Team Origin) can earn salaries of £300,000 to £600,000 per year, and the big stars can earn two or three times that plus win bonuses