Tuesday, 27 November 2012

What next for Sir Ben??

So his glittering Olympic career has come to an end and what an epic monumental success the past 16 years have been with precious few failures or setbacks apart from those minor injury concerns that come with getting on a bit.

Four golds, a silver and universal recognition, which is perhaps his greatest achievement since he has triumphed in a minority sport where headlines are almost impossible to command.

Footballers just have to sneeze or behave badly to merit blanket media coverage but a sailor has to do a heck of a lot more, like devote 16 years of your life (and the rest) to the exclusion of all else to training and competing as Ainslie has done or beat yourself up on the high seas, at the expense of soul and sanity, as Dame Ellen MacArthur did during her extraordinary world record in B & Q back in 2005.

Ainslie was caught out once for behaving badly when in December last year, he had a run in with a cameraman who had been following his racing much too closely. It prompted an incandescent rage and the sort of colourful invective that Ainslie is renowned for when the red mist descends in combat.

We saw it again in Weymouth in August when he needed something extra to fend off the mighty challenge from the Great Dane Jonas Hoegh-Christensen.

For seasoned Ainslie watchers, the temper tantrum in Perth was pretty normal but what was unusual was that his actions were recorded on film. Not only was he disqualified but in an instant, his public cover as a courteous mild-mannered sort was blown and the aggressive, gladiatorial, passionate athlete that his medals always demonstrated, was exposed.

Inevitably the public was immediately engaged - sport is all about personality - and his big hoorah in Weymouth became compelling especially after he was beaten in Weymouth six weeks before the Olympic Games by his younger British rival Giles Scott. Would that blazing fury cost him the fourth gold and a slice of history or could he hold it all together?

We all know what happened next so it was predictable that Ainslie would call time on that career after the Olympics but what is intriguing is the timing of his announcement, some two months later.

Nothing has changed since August 5th when he won his fifth medal to become the greatest Olympic sailor in history. His claim on the British Finn spot at Rio 2016 always looked tenuous due to the rise of the  formidable Scott.

The Star class, the preserve of his gold medal winning chums Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson that Ainslie was hoping to muscle in on for Rio 2016, is still on the scrapheap. His AC45 campaign which he is hoping to turn into an America's Cup campaign has a sponsor but until next year, no competition since the next regatta is not until April 2013.

Maybe the letter from Buckingham Palace has finally arrived which means he can ease up in his 'public' duties and concentrate on the America's Cup, which if successful will bring more glory to Britain and make him very rich.

Already honoured, Ainslie was hankering after the knighthood and my guess is that he has heard it is on its way, as he so richly deserves.  

This is what I wrote during the Olympics - before Super Sunday - about Ainslie calling it quits.

"OK so I have no confirmation of this and he always trots out the ‘never say never’ line when asked about it but my instinct is that Ben Ainslie will quit Olympic sailing after Sunday's sensational showdown at London 2012 with Jonas Hoegh-Christensen from Denmark.

Let me explain why. He has made no secret of the fact he has found the physical demands of Finn training and racing incredibly hard in this Olympic cycle. The introduction of free downwind pumping in the class has made a massive difference to the fitness levels these guys need to consistently win races at this level.

Ainslie has an aggressive style of pumping – just watching him wears me out frankly. And when you hear Rebecca Adlington say at the age of 23, she can no longer compete seriously with the 15 and 16 year olds coming through, you realise how tricky it must be for the 35 year-old Ainslie to match the strapping young talent in the Finn class.

 To say he has worked bloody hard is an understatement. He has been grinding away on the treadmill day after day after day since late 2010 when Keith Mills revealed he was disbanding his America’s Cup syndicate Team Origin.

That decision while gut wrenching, freed him up for the gym and from that point, Ainslie who was seriously underweight and underfit for the Finns, devoted his waking hours to beefing up every physiology element that could be measured.  

He is now around 15 kgs heavier than he was then – but still quite slight for a Finn sailor – which has been vital to his campaign for gold, especially in the stronger Weymouth breezes.

The chances of him wanting to do all that again, when the incredibly talented Giles Scott is waiting in the wings, are nil. And besides, getting his fourth gold medal in front of a British crowd would have meant EVERYTHING to this fiercely patriotic bloke.

As a script, it could not have been written better and his final Olympic chapter will make a belter of a climax. A postscript in Rio 2016 might prove woefully limp as a wrap!

He has also laid the foundations for the next phase of his career and will be off as soon as the Olympics are over to get started. No professional sailing career is complete without a win in the America’s Cup and although the event is not so coveted as it once was, Ainslie is intent on having the Auld Mug in his massive trophy cabinet.

It will take a lot of effort and support and money and although his Ben Ainslie Racing campaign has been launched, he needs some big sponsorship bucks to make it successful . That will become his priority and will fill every waking hour. He will also need to get up to speed on the AC45s – his multihull experience has been limited – but that won’t take long for someone of his remarkable talents.

With a fourth gold medal to add to the silver from Atlanta, he will become the greatest Olympic sailor in history, which reflects those remarkable talents and 20 years of sacrifice, effort and endeavour.

It is difficult to think of one reason why he would continue in Olympic sailing and in some ways, it is surprising he has not announced his retirement already but then, you can see why he would want to keep his options open. 

He is the most marketable commodity in British sailing, perhaps in world sailing, and it would be daft to pass up any opportunity to add to his growing fortune. He may want another Aston Martin in the near future and do away with his trusty Volvo, you never know. 

His interests outside of sailing are growing too. He has taken up flying and wants to get his pilot’s licence and is mad for motor racing. With his intensive gym programme tapered, he can devote more time to these leisurely activities though it difficult to see them taking over.

And of course he wants a family and they don’t happen by magic so that too will take up time. His type of Olympic obsession excludes normal activities but the years are passing and so perhaps are the opportunities for a match made in heaven. Many men have had two wives by the time they are 35 for heaven’s sake.

But I’m probably wrong about all of this. It has been known."

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