Team GB's Ben Ainslie wins fourth consecutive gold medal and becomes most prolific Olympic sailor ever

 

The records just keep coming. They began with Bradley Wiggins, who cycled his way to become the Briton with the largest tally of Olympic medals. On Saturday Team GB had its most successful day in more than a century with six golds. And today Ben Ainslie became the greatest sailor in Olympian history.

Sixteen years after he first won a silver as a gangly teenager in Atlanta, Ainslie swept to victory in the Finn class sailing winning a fourth consecutive gold medal and cementing his reputation as the word's most prolific Olympic sailor.

His medal tally now beats that of Denmark's legendary sailor Paul Elvstrom who won four straight golds between 1948 and 1960.

Under brilliant sunshine and a light - if often unpredictable – breeze he swept to victory under the watchful gaze of thousands of spectators who had flocked to the Weymouth coastline to see the Cornish sailor battle in his most important race to date. After a gruelling race Ainslie thanked them in kind by standing up in his boat “Rita” holding two streaming smoke flares above his head.

It was a moment the fans on the Nothe had been desperate to see. Only an hour earlier they watched in dismay as Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson were left heartbroken as their attempt to win a second consecutive gold in the Star class stumbled at the last 300 metres of race.

The British sailors had been out in front throughout the qualifying stages and looked set to successfully defend their Beijing gold off the coast of Weymouth. But a last minute spur by the Swedish team dashed their hopes and pushed the two Brits into second place in the final league table.

Ironically it was another Scandinavian who threatened to stop Ainslie from achieving his dream of becoming the most decorated Olympian sailor. All week the 35-year-old had struggled against Jonas Hogh-Christensen, a powerfully built red-headed Dane who gave up sailing after coming fifth in Beijing to put on concerts for bands like the Rolling Stones – only to return to competitive sailing and dog Ainslie's chances.

Despite going into the competition as odds on favourite Ainslie struggled early on in the week against the “Great Dane” who beat him to the finish line in seven of the ten qualifying races.

But he never gave up and by the time he came to the final race Ainslie had closed the gap to just two points. With the final race being worth double points all he had to do was beat Hogh-Christensen.

There is little love lost between Ainslie and his Danish rival. Earlier in the week Ainslie accused the Dane and a Dutch sailor of unfairly suggesting he had it a mark, forcing him to make a penalty turn.

“They've made me angry,” he said when he was back on dry land. “And you don't want to make me angry."

Despite a poor start revenge came swiftly in the final race as Ainslie managed to inch his way ahead of Hogh-Christensen and keep his rival at the back of the pack forcing the Dane to take silver on points and miss out on the top podium spot.

Speaking to reporters after the match, Ainslie paid tribute to his opponent.

“Jonas sailed one of the best series I've ever seen,” he said. “He pushed me all the way so all credit to him. All I could do was try and stay ahead of him.”

He described the final race as “the most nerve racking experience of my life” but added that the estimated 4,500 spectators who had gathered to cheer him on helped.

“In terms of the opportunity to race in front of a home crowd like that to win an Olympic gold medal, it will never get any better than that,” he said. “We've never experienced that in sailing at the Olympics before really. To have that crowd there, willing you on, it certainly made a difference.”

Hogh-Christensen, who has said he will retire after London 2012, also paid tribute to his British competitor. “There's no doubt, he's the best sailor in modern times,” he said. “But I could give him a run for his money. He won by the smallest margin possible. Obviously I would have liked to have been on top but it wasn't to be and so it is.”

Ainslie, who said he was looking forward to catching up with his family, added that he hoped younger generations would be inspired to take to up sailing.

“When I started sailing in Cornwall as an eight year old in my duffle coat and wellies I never imagined I'd be standing here 28 years later,” he said. “ You never quite know what's going to happen. That's life.”

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