Pinsent and Ainslie earn place in pantheon of Olympic gods

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Greatness doesn't come in one game, one race. It is built over the years, with pain and unremitting application, but then there will always come a time when everything that has been achieved must be defined, once and for ever.

Greatness doesn't come in one game, one race. It is built over the years, with pain and unremitting application, but then there will always come a time when everything that has been achieved must be defined, once and for ever.

This can happen in the briefest passage of action. Or it can take eight days in shifty wind and treacherous seas. If we didn't know it before, we know it now after the weekend of Pinsent and Ainslie, the rowing-sailing firm of Olympians that will surely always be registered with the gods.

Matthew Pinsent, in possibly the greatest rowing race the Olympics has ever seen, won in the men's coxless fours by a margin of one eight-hundredth of a second. It seems absurd, this fragment of time, when you retrace the 2,000 metres of the Schinias Lake that saw the world champion Canadians push Pinsent and his crew of James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams to what for one terrible moment seemed like a point of breakdown which could never be redeemed. But there it was, the difference between Pinsent's standing as a giant in his own right and the unavoidable sense that his three previous Olympic golds had been the gift of his uniquely-motivated former crewmate, Sir Steve Redgrave.

However unfair, even false, that impression might have been, it was something to be banished and Pinsent did it in the flicker of an eyelid.

"I couldn't believe it when the Canadians didn't crack," said Pinsent. "When after putting in 30 strokes I looked over and saw that not only were they still there, they were still ahead. So what could we do? We just had to give it another 10 strokes, and in the end we didn't beat them by a stroke but the timing of a favourable part of that stroke. Before that, when we had the lead, we kept putting in the strokes and I kept waiting for us to pull away - but it went on and on and on, and you just couldn't know how it was going to finish." But he knew what he had to do. He had to go down into his innards in pursuit of that last little bit of strength and resolve.

When the photo finish was in, when the gold was confirmed and Pinsent stood in the fierce morning sunshine and his crewmates sang the national anthem with a tuneless passion, his emotions flowed out - so fiercely, so uncontrollably, that his Canadian-Greek wife Demetra rushed to his side and embraced him. "I had to run to him," she said, "because I knew how much this had meant to him, and what difficult times he and the crew had, and it had all come right at the finish and you could see all that was going through him."

There was another embrace at the water's edge. It came from Redgrave, the taciturn, iron-clad eminence gris of the amphibious-pain business. It wasn't showy. It wasn't David Beckham leaping on the back of a team-mate after a goal against the Ukraine or Luxembourg. It was a man of great experience and achievement looking into the eyes of someone younger, someone in whom he had invested vast trust, and saying: "You did all that you had to do."

Pinsent says he will take a month or so to clear away the swirl of emotions that in Sydney four years ago left him, as he put it, "bipolar". He said: "I lost the gold medal for a while - and my passport. But I hope to be a little calmer now. You can't rush into a decision about going on to Beijing, but I know my wife wouldn't stand in my way. She knows it makes me happy."

He will be 37 at the next Olympics and, as he said, even when you win a gold medal you don't suddenly put on a pair of rose-tinted glasses when you look at the world you have inhabited for four years. You don't forget the up-chucking on the dawn paddle, you don't erase the kind of churning emotion which accompanied Pinsent and his crewmates all the way to the point of victory over a superb Canadian boat, the abandoning of the pairs partnership with Cracknell, the injury to the eager Alex Partridge or the bitter comment of the ejected Rick Dunn that watching the new crew row on without him was a bit like seeing your girlfriend sleeping with your best mate.

But all of that will also pass - and what will Pinsent be left with? The fierce glow of achievement and a fresh dawning of the old challenge, to get it done, to come through as he did four times before. The pull of Beijing will be irresistible, you have to suspect, as you must also do in the case of Ben Ainslie, who from three attempts now has two golds and one silver.

Ainslie was brought into Olympic headquarters yesterday, along with his gold and silver-winning team-mates: The Three Blondes - Shirley Robertson, Sarah Ayton and Sarah Web - and Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield, and on dry land you saw him a little differently from the 27-year-old genius pirate who eight years ago in Atlanta was narrowly beaten in the Laser class by the famously-ruthless Brazilian world champion, Robert Schiedt.

Four years later, Schiedt's fans burned effigies of the young Englishman - and sent him death threats - after he moved from silver to gold and drove Scheidt into a frenzy of frustration with his brilliant spoiling tactics.

Since then, Ainslie has put on 40lb quite deliberately to deal with the increased physical demands of handling the bigger Finn class, acquired America's Cup sea legs and over the past week has announced himself as possibly the greatest single-handed sailor his seafaring nation has ever produced.

What you saw so clearly yesterday was the Ainslie aura. Robertson, who won her second Olympic gold here in the Yngling class and has no pressing reason to defer to the steering touch of any team-mate or rival, says: "What Ben has done here is fantastic - we look up to him for example and inspiration. It seems that he can do anything." This includes throwing fits of displeasure worthy of Sir Alex Ferguson. When he was disqualified on the first day he came out of the protest room in a magnificent fury. "I trampled on some sunglasses and kicked some fences," he said a little sheepishly yesterday. But soon enough he was all calculated business. The yachting cognoscenti rate his comeback as nothing short of phenomenal.

Now he, too, says that he will take some time to decide on Beijing. In the meantime, he will broaden his experience with the New Zealand America's Cup team - he had a dispiriting time with the Americans in Seattle before returning to the Olympic challenge. "Ultimately, I would like to steer a British boat to America's Cup victory, but the Olympics will always be something special for me." Before his first race, Ainslie indulged a career-long superstition: he had a Chinese meal - "just a little bit of Peking duck and some rice". It does not seem fanciful to imagine a somewhat more spectacular banquet in Beijing. Perhaps he could share a table with Pinsent. Before the action began, truly, it would be a breakfast of champions.