Cool Ben Ainslie snatches fourth Olympic gold as rivals crumble in tense finale

Briton becomes most decorated Olympic sailor after fightback delights home fans


His element is air, not water. The wind, not the sea. But in order to seal his status as the most decorated sailor in Olympics history, as he did with a fourth gold here yesterday, first and foremost Ben Ainslie needed fire. After all, he prised the laurels from Jonas Hogh-Christensen only on a medal race tie-break – and might never have done so, but for being provoked from his torpor by his Danish rival.

On Thursday, having finished behind him in six consecutive Finn races, Ainslie was infuriated when Hogh-Christensen and the Dutchman, Pieter-Jan Postma, accused him of touching a marker. Obliged to take a penalty turn, he came back seething. "They've made me angry," he said. "You don't want to do that."

Sure enough, Ainslie then harnessed the winds as though they were his own furies, closing the gap to leave things on a knife-edge yesterday. So long as they did not let Postma get too far ahead, whichever of the rivals finished first would win gold. In a failing, fitful wind, however, Ainslie doused his passions, summoned up all his experience and heeded the old axiom: "Don't get mad, get even." The 35-year-old beat only one of the other nine boats. In what was almost certainly his final Olympic race, however, it was the only one that mattered.

"I was angry at the situation," he said later, referring to the contretemps earlier in the series. "And I was on the back foot. Something had to change. But today was a strategy race, it was about making right decisions."

Actually, as much as anything else, gold ultimately proved contingent on sheer luck. In playing cat-and-mouse with Hogh-Christensen, Ainslie took a chance on Postma – and, in a fateful twist, could well have paid the price but for the Dutchman getting tangled with New Zealand's Dan Slater in a desperate late dash, and himself being obliged to take a penalty turn. Closing on second one moment, Postma had to settle for fifth, and so forfeited bronze to Jonathan Lobert of France.

Ainslie and Slater have been friends since adolescence, but nobody was reprising Ainslie's complaints on Thursday that Hogh-Christensen and Postma had "ganged up" on him. "All I wanted to do was protect the inside," the New Zealander said. "I said: 'Just don't do it.' It was a really big risk for not a lot of gain. He had silver sewn up."

Hogh-Christensen made a miscalculation of his own, electing to push his rival right in the opening stages only to discover that he had yielded him the favours of a capricious breeze. Ainslie was much quicker to the first marker, and was always going to be too artful to let him by after that. Following the turbulence of midweek, on and off the water, this proved more akin to chess on an invisible checkerboard of gusts, the bay merely sliding and sighing below. It might have suited the crowd, sprawled upon a sunny hill, but the less exposed course made for a nuanced, stressful business. At the end Ainslie pumped his fists, unfurled a Union flag – and, as though incarnating his relief, lit two ochre flares.

"That was the most nerve-racking experience of my life," he confessed. "Conditions were so variable that it was impossible to keep tabs on two guys at once. But I've been doing this for a long time, been through a lot of scrapes in my career."

However uncongenial the challenge, the milieu could scarcely have been better for his Olympic swansong: beyond lay the cliffs of Purbeck, guarding the kingdom even as they dozed in the sun; above, rags of idle cloud.

"When I started sailing, as an eight-year-old in Cornwall, in duffle coat and wellies, I never imagined I might be standing here all these years later," Ainslie said.

"It was a really tough week. Expectations were so high, and Jonas sailed one of the best series I've ever seen. But this was the time to do it, in front of a home crowd. For all the people who have supported me – over the years, and here today – listening to a crowd like that makes a difference. After six races I was in trouble, but I turned it around and got it right when it counts. I don't want to go through anything like that again in my life."

It seems unlikely that he will be doing so in Rio in four years' time. "You never say never," he said. "But it's all but impossible to expect anything as good as this. I'd need a very good reason to come back. Slowly, things start to fall apart, physically. You're pushing yourself to the limit, and your body doesn't always like it."

He expressed a due debt to his physiotherapists and above all to his coach, "Sid" Howlett. In essence, however, all these golds – which, along with a silver in Atlanta, take Ainslie past the great Dane Paul Elvstrom – have been forged in an untouchable blaze of desire and mental strength. When it was over, he shook hands with Hogh-Christensen, even helped him haul his dinghy up the slipway. But Elvstrom's vanquished compatriot knew he had been scalded by some strange, implacable force.

"No doubt," said Hogh-Christensen. "Ben is the best sailor of modern times. I was able to give him a run for his money. Maybe it would have been fun to have a bit more breeze. But you can't control the weather."

Looking across at Ainslie, he cannot have been so sure. As Slater said: "Ben turns it on every time. Just keeps a cool head, takes minimal risk for maximum gain. Without a shadow of doubt, he's the greatest sailor in the world."

Ruling the waves: Ainslie moves up

* Most decorated British Olympians

Chris Hoy (Track cycling; 2000-12) 5 golds, 1 silver, 0 bronze: 6 medals

Steve Redgrave (Rowing; 1984-2000) 5 golds, 0 silver, 1 bronze: 6 medals

Bradley Wiggins (Cycling; 2000-12) 4 golds, 1 silver, 2 bronze: 7 medals

Ben Ainslie (Sailing; 1996-2012) 4 golds, 1 silver, 0 bronze: 5 medals

* Sports Personality of the Year odds

8-15 Wiggins

3-1 Jessica Ennis

6-1 Andy Murray

18-1 Mo Farah

40-1 Hoy

50-1 Ainslie

Life and Style
Divers at Bouldnor Cliff underwater site in the Solent off the Isle of Wight, where the silt sample containing the einkorn DNA was found
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower