Britain's most celebrated sailor was involved in an astonishing clash with a television camera boat yesterday, an incident that led to his disqualification from the world championships in Perth, Australia, and prompted questions about his temperament ahead of next year's Olympic Games.
But the day could have got even worse for Ben Ainslie. The maximum penalty for gross misconduct, with which he was charged, is a two-year- ban, which would have prevented him from going for his fourth gold medal at London 2012.
Ainslie was hauled up before an international jury after being cited by the race committee for confronting the boat's driver and cameraman. During the race he had shouted at them, claiming they impeded his course. Two days earlier he had also shouted at the television boat for being too close on the course.
After finishing second yesterday he sailed across to the TV boat, jumped from his craft, swam to the media vessel and climbed aboard. He remonstrated vigorously with the boat's driverand then had a physical altercation with the photographer, whom he appeared to grab and throw aside before diving into the water and swimming back to his dinghy.
The event organisers confirmed the incident is being treated as a breach of the Royal Yachting Association's (RYA) Rule 69, regarding gross misconduct. The RYA guidelines list "fighting or assault" as punishable by excluding an individual from the current or future events for an unspecified period.
Later Stephen Park, the RYA's Olympic manager, admitted that Ainslie had brought the sport into disrepute, but also criticised those who had described Ainslie's actions as "assault".
"There have been various rumours in the media of Ben having 'assaulted' the driver of the boat," Park said. "As far as we are concerned, there was not an assault. As far as the driver was concerned, that was part of his statement to the jury. So we are keen to put to that to bed and recognise that is a bit of over-exaggeration and sensationalism in the press."
Ainslie, who is known for having a fiery temper, was disqualified from both that race and the one which followed, which meant he missed today's medal-deciding finale between the top 10, in which he would have started in the lead.
While Park went on to say that it was a disappointment that the world title had been decided by a jury rather than on the water, and that both parties had apologised to each other, Ainslie was more forthright. "I am really disappointed with the decision, which is a massive overreaction," he said.
"Certainly I overreacted to what I thought was a situation where my performance was being really hindered but, as Stephen Park has just said, everyone has taken it as if it was something which has been blown out of proportion to what happened. And we were all looking forwards to moving on.
"I am only very sorry that the jury decided to react the way they did over something which was not as big as it has been blown up to be. I have worked extremely hard over the last six weeks in Perth, training incredibly hard at a venue which has been difficult for me at my size against the bigger sailors.
"I have felt I have sailed one of the best regattas of my life, and so to be in this situation is very disappointing. I certainly hope it will be one of the British boats which will be standing on top of the podium if it can't be me." The jury made no public statement.
The 34-year old, who lives in Lymington, at the edge of the New Forest, has been tipped to be one of those being considered to carry the British team flag at the opening ceremony.
The boat's driver works for a television company, Sunset+Vine, with close links to Ainslie's PR firm, and the protagonists were a picture of friendly jocularity as they waited outside the room in which the five-person jury, chaired by the Frenchman Bernard Bonneau, conducted the hearing. Sunset+Vine did not have a crew at the hearing, and a Croatian journalist who tried to film the post-hearing statements was asked to leave by officials.
At first Ainslie was under the impression he would still be able to sail the final race, as the competition generally allows the worst result to be discarded. But both disqualifications count. That still leaves two Britons in the top three, reigning European champion Giles Scott first and reigning world champion Ed Wright third, with the Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma second.Reuse content