Ben Ainslie: 'I can only win one medal per Games – I've done all I can do'

If he played football he would be the most famous man on earth, yet even after his Olympic feats Ben Ainslie must still fight against the tide for public recognition
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When Ben Ainslie was 15 he won a junior world championship sailing a Laser Radial, a class of dinghy. Someone at the BBC, noting this splendid achievement, decided that it would be nice to invite him to the Sports Personality of the Year awards. He and his father duly turned up outside the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in London in a taxi. Ainslie grins as he recounts the story. "We got out and this horde of people came running towards me. Then they stopped, and this one guy went, 'It's all right, it's nobody'. My dad put his arm round me. He said, 'It's OK, son'."

It is safe to say that Ainslie, now 31, won't get the "it's nobody" treatment when he turns up for this year's awards, in Liverpool later this month. Nor, however, will he get the main prize. Like the cyclist Nicole Cooke, who featured in this interview slot last week, Ainslie is a 125-1 no-hoper. Like Cooke, he shouldn't be.

He has won gold medals at each of the last three Olympics, and in Qingdao in August established himself without the slightest doubt as the greatest dinghy sailor in the world, and Britain's finest Olympic sailor ever.

In Madrid, a couple of evenings before our conversation, he had been voted World Yachtsman of the Year for the third time. "For me," said the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, "his achievement is as valid as [Michael] Phelps or [Usain] Bolt."

It was some tribute, yet even in Britain, Ainslie is not considered an Olympic titan of remotely the same stature as Phelps, an American, and Bolt, a Jamaican. For an island nation we are curiously lukewarm about our sailing heroes, so it is worth reflecting that if Ainslie were as good at football as he is at sailing, he would probably be the most famous man on earth.

With that exalted status in mind let me relate the exchange we have as our interview, in a hotel lounge in decidedly landlocked Windsor, draws to a close. Ainslie is a modest man, not even remotely inclined to boast despite having so much to boast about, yet the question still needs to be posed: does he think, as an Olympic champion since 2000, unbeaten in the Finn in any competition since 2004, that maybe he doesn't get the respect or recognition he deserves.

"Erm, well, I have to be careful what I say," he says, carefully. "It's, erm, a little frustrating sometimes. I don't know the best way to explain it."

Doesn't he feel, in his heart of hearts, that he should really be in the running for Sports Personality of the Year? There is a pause, while he digests this impertinence, and then a resounding click, as my tape-recorder switches off.

"Oh perfect," he says. "That's got me out of a tricky question."

No it hasn't, I tell him, turning the tape over. "No, right. Well, it's obviously not for me to comment on what other people decide. In sailing you can only win one medal per Games, so I've done all I can do, just as Chris Hoy won everything he could have won in Beijing. But there are always one or two individuals who get pinned as the heroes of the Games, and that's what happened to Rebecca Adlington."

Adlington is 11-4 second favourite to win the BBC's prize, behind the 8-13 hot favourite Lewis Hamilton. Which of them would get Ainslie's vote? "Probably Lewis. His sporting achievement aside, he's had a tough year. Last year he could do no wrong, but this year there have been plenty of people having pops at him, and it takes character to come through all that. Chris Hoy is surely ahead of Adlington too, in terms of achievement. Huge respect to both of them, but he won three gold medals as opposed to two."

As for Hamilton, in June this year he joined Ainslie on the Hugo Boss yacht in the Round-the-Island race off the Isle of Wight. They hadn't met before but Ainslie was impressed. "He's a great guy. It was quite rough and wild to begin with but after an hour we let him on the helm, and to start with it was a bit 'left a bit, right a bit' but after 10 minutes he was fine on his own, which was impressive considering he'd never sailed before. You could see the same focus that he has in a car." Has Hamilton returned the favour and watched Ainslie hammering round Silverstone, perhaps tacking slightly up the straight?

A polite laugh. "No, I haven't had that call."

OK, so let's talk about the offshore equivalent of Formula One, the eye-wateringly expensive America's Cup. Although he owes his reputation to his prowess in small boats, Ainslie has well and truly nailed his colours to the America's Cup mast.

Having acquitted himself with great skill and no little dignity last time out as reserve helmsman for Team New Zealand, he has now signed up as the helmsman with TeamOrigin, the British challenge led by Sir Keith Mills. The only problem is that the America's Cup is currently grounded, pending resolution to legal wrangling between two of the most powerful teams, BMW Oracle Racing and the holders, Alinghi.

"But I was at a dinner the other night [the dinner where he received his prestigious award, not that he mentions it] and Russell Coutts [the New Zealander who runs BMW Oracle] and [Alinghi owner Ernesto] Bertorelli were both there. There were plenty of good conversations going on, and a clear message that everyone is keen to get the America's Cup out of the courts and back on to the water."

The last time I interviewed Ainslie, we met in Valencia where he was holed up with the Team New Zealand crew, effectively preparing to sit on the bench. "It was," he says now, "without doubt the most frustrating experience of my sailing career. But it was a decision I'd made two years previously. I was willing to remove myself from the race boat and for all the frustration it was also probably the best thing I have ever done, a massive learning experience."

His focus now, he adds, is entirely on the next America's Cup, whenever that might be. But the ambition still burns to defend his Olympic title in the Finn, off Weymouth, in 2012. The two enthusiasms can exist happily side by side, even though there were those who questioned whether Ainslie would, or even should, have raced in Qingdao. "It had clearly always been my intention," he says. "But yeah, I'd been away from the class, so there was a lot of talk, would I be able to get back into it? It was a little bit of posturing from some people. I found it quite amusing. Maybe it will be the same next time, but it's not as if I won't be sailing the Finn in the next three years."

All that said, it is easy to understand why there is some consternation in the sailing fraternity at Ainslie's keenness, and indeed ability, to switch from small boats to much bigger vessels. It is not unlike Lewis Hamilton, just to pluck an example from nowhere, moving between cars and motorbikes.

Ainslie agrees with the analogy. "Yeah, they're very different. And yet one naturally leads to the other. In small boats it's about sharpness and tactics, while the America's Cup is about design and teamwork. And you can take that expertise to the Volvo Ocean Race, or the Jules Verne, which is fully crewed, round-the-world racing in big cats. They're different again but with the same skill sets."

In October, he used those ever-burgeoning skill sets to skipper Sir Richard Branson's boat Virgin Money, with the objective of smashing the transatlantic monohull speed record. Needless to add, Branson was on board. "I'd never met him before and he was great," Ainslie says. "He's not really a sailor. He had his son and daughter, Sam and Holly, with him and they all had a great attitude. Really nice people. We kept them mainly below decks to start with because it was pretty rough, but we had fantastic conditions on the final day, so we got them fully involved." It was the final day, though, because the challenge faltered with a ripped mainsail.

"After that there was no prospect of the record, so we had to decide whether to beat back into 30 knots for two days to New York, or run downwind to Bermuda for a day. It wasn't a hard decision, and Richard was quite happy because Bermuda's on the way to Necker Island."

Did they discuss the America's Cup? I can imagine Branson fancying the publicity. "Yeah," says Ainslie, after a slight pause. "We had a good chat about it, and it's something he might be interested in. For a businessman it's commercially quite viable. The commercial rights are considerable. But TeamOrigin is Keith's team."

Mills, the factory worker's son who grew up in an Essex council house and made a vast fortune out of conceiving air miles, among other things, did not get where he is today without trusting in talent. And in Ainslie he has placed his trust in truly remarkable talent. But does Ainslie himself understand this talent, I wonder? Again inviting immodesty, I ask him what it is that sets him apart. Does he acknowledge his right to be called Britain's greatest-ever Olympic sailor?

"Erm, well, it's a huge honour, but I'm still competing so it's not something I can afford to dwell on. Skills-wise, I obviously have a good feeling for the waves, but then I've been sailing pretty much full-time since I was 12 years old. I was in my first Olympics aged 19 [at Atlanta, where he won silver] and I've stored all that experience.

"In Sydney, for example. Four years previously I'd been on the wrong end of a tussle with Robert Scheidt [his sometime nemesis from Brazil, whose surname Ainslie pronounces with just a hint of relish] so I was able to turn that into a positive and get the better of him. Sailing is so complex that the more experience you have at that top level, the better your chances. I know I'm good under pressure. Often, I'm up against people who have never been in that position before."

Rogge's comparison with Phelps and Bolt was a good one, because Ainslie's presence on the starting line has the same effect on his rivals as theirs does. I ask him whether he senses that intimidatory factor.

"Yes, but it's almost to my detriment. In the Olympics this time I felt as though everyone out there was gunning for me. Not in the sense of teaming up, but they certainly all wanted to make things difficult for me.

"Fortunately, I think I'm changing as I get older. When I was younger I was a bit of a hothead on the water. I got wound up. But I'm calmer now and a better sailor for it."

I venture that if he wins gold again in 2012, Steve Redgrave's record of five golds in five successive Games will move within reach. "Yeah, it gets mentioned a lot," he says. "He's a hero of mine, and it would be fantastic to get somewhere near him, but I can't let that alter my judgement. 2012 is a definite goer but I'll be 35 then, and that's close to the limit in the Finn. My back's already pretty nailed, to be honest. You're suspended from your knees, twisting with the waves, probably the worst thing you can do for your back. But if the Star class stays in then I could move into that. It's still tough but not the same as the Finn." He drains his coffee.

"The great thing about sailing is that there are so many different opportunities. I'll sail in another Games, and maybe one after that, but there's also the America's Cup, the Vendée Globe, the Volvo Ocean Race ... hopefully, I'll still be out there competing in 20 years' time." Which gives us another two decades to bestow on him the recognition he manifestly deserves.

Ben Ainslie is launching BT Mobile Saver, offering calls to UK mobiles for just 7.5p a minute.

Ports of call: Ainslie in numbers

15 The amount, in kilograms, Ben Ainslie had to put on in order to move successfully up to the larger Finn class for the 2004 Olympics.

4 medals Ainslie has won four medals over four Olympics, dating back to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. A silver was followed by three golds.

16 The age Ainslie was when becoming a world champion for the first time, winning the Laser Radial World Championship in 1993.

5 championships In 2005, Ainslie became the first sailor to win four Finn class world championships. Ainslie won a fifth championship earlier this year.

2 races Ainslie was disqualified from two races at the 2004 games, but still went on to win three of the next four in the series and claim gold.

19 Ainslie's age when winning silver in the Laser class in Atlanta, making him Britain's youngest Olympic sailing medallist.