Sailing in the Olympics will not be the same after the withdrawal of a living legend in the sport, Sir Ben Ainslie, the Briton who managed to bag four Olympic golds and a silver over the course of his illustrious career.
The 36-year-old spoke to Kathimerini about his decision, his America’s Cup ambitions and his affection for Greece, stating his love for the country’s seas and expressing a desire to compete here again one day.
You have announced you will not race in the Olympics again. Was that an easy decision?
It was not a decision I took lightly and I took some time to sit back and consider everything after the Olympics. Immediately after competing in London I headed straight into an America’s Cup World Series event with my new team, JP Morgan BAR, and I was keen to see how that went. It was certainly a baptism of fire heading straight from an Olympic Games into an event with no time for practice and also racing in a completely new class. The first America’s Cup World Series event was challenging and a steep learning curve. But we had some quality time to practice ahead of the second event and it paid off as we finished second overall, which was a fantastic achievement for such a new team. I didn’t want to make an instant decision after the London Games, [but] after the success in the second World Series event I knew at that point that the America’s Cup was my future. Ultimately I know that in order to succeed at something at the highest level, you need to focus [completely on] it, and that’s what I need to do for this project and see if we can win the America’s Cup and bring it back to Britain.
Did the International Sailing Federation decision to drop the Star keelboat from the Games play a part in your decision? If ISAF had reinstated the class in the Olympic schedule, would you have changed your mind?
It certainly factored in my decision but it was not the overall reason. I knew that if the Star class were to be reinstated, it might have been a potential option for me to compete in 2016. Although I would have faced a battle with Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson if they had carried on, so it wouldn’t have been easy, but it was potentially still an option. As it turned out, ISAF chose not to reinstate the Star so that made the decision easier for me. I made a decision to commit all my time and effort to the America’s Cup, secure funding for the 35th Cup and aim to bring the Cup back to Britain. This is a huge project and requires me to give everything I have in order to make it work and I can’t do that if I am also trying to balance an Olympic campaign at the same time.
Sailing has seen winners of all ages at the highest level. Do you think you may have quit the Olympics too early?
No, not really. I attended my first Olympics was when I was just 19.
Sailing is a unique sport in the sense that experience has a huge part to play in success on the water, and as you have seen with sailors such as Russell Coutts, you can still be in your 50s and at the top of your game. But the Olympics is slightly different, depending on the cIass, I would not be able to compete in a class that is as physically demanding as the Finn against someone 20 years younger than myself. I have spent over 20 years training and competing at an Olympic level, which is a huge part of my life. I feel after five Olympic Games it is time to move on to a new challenge, I have loved every part of my Olympic career and finishing in London with gold was an amazing way for me to retire.
What is your goal as far as the America’s Cup is concerned?
To win the America’s Cup and bring it back to Britain, where it all started. It was conceived in 1851 off the Isle of Wight and since then it has never come back to Britain, and I hope I can play a part in making that happen.
Most of your trophies have been in the Finn class. Is that your favorite one?
I have been really fortunate to sail a whole range of classes in my time. Lasers, Finns, 100 ft Super Maxis, TP52s, IACC V5, Mini Maxis, Extreme 40s and AC45s. I love the Finn for its physicality and the technical challenge. I also love AC45s for their physicality, the awesome speed and great design for racing.
What would you say has been the finest moment of your career to date and why?
London 2012 was obviously a very special Games for me, but I have experienced many great battles on the racecourse. The competition between myself and Robert Scheidt was one of my favorites. I headed to Atlanta, to my first Olympics, as a 19-year-old with great expectation and found myself caught in an epic battle with one of the sailing greats, someone who as a young sailor I had looked up to. That final race in Atlanta was a humbling experience. I worked as hard as I could but it was not to be and I had to settle for silver. It was a great experience for me and ultimately not winning on that day gave me the hunger to come back and win gold next time.
In Greece you have only won gold medals. What are your memories of this country?
I have always loved racing in Greece, in particular in the Saronic Gulf. On the water it is a real challenge between the light to medium sea breeze and then the intensity of the Meltemi and katabatic winds. I feel there is a real love for sailing in Greece and that resonates with the local sailors and the hospitality they have shown.
You have raced against Greek sailing champions such as Emilios Papathanasiou and Ioannis Mitakis. What is your opinion of Greek sailing?
There are some extremely talented sailors in Greece, sailors like Papathanasiou, Mitakis, Nikos Kaklamanakis, Sofia Bekatorou and George Andreadis. These sailors and many more have had some fantastic results for Greek sailing in a range of classes. I imagine it must be really hard to find funding for any sport given the global financial crisis but there is certainly the talent there to be successful.
Would you like to race in Greece again? If so, in what kind of competition?
It would be great to sail in Greece again. Perhaps we could have a stage of the Americas Cup World Series [there]? These events are really exciting to watch and for the first time sailing offers a real strong package for both a TV and spectator audience.
In 2002, when you won gold in Piraeus, you stated at the Olympiakos club where the race took place that you were a Panathinaikos fan. Did you mean it, or were you teasing Papathanasiou?
That was just a joke – sorry, that’s the English sense of humor. I do follow [soccer] but my club is Chelsea FC.
Besides sailing, what other activities do you enjoy?
I love road cycling, and it is great for that here in San Francisco. I am also learning to fly, which is a long process as I don’t have much time for it.
In the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal in cycling, some say that certain classes of sailing are also prone to doping. Have you heard of any such case in the sport?
I have never heard of it, or really been suspicious of it. I think sailing is a very clean sport and would be extremely surprised and saddened to hear otherwise.
What would you say the London Olympics has done for Britain?
Without overusing a certain word we have all heard a huge amount over the last few years, ultimately it is all about legacy. It was amazing to see an event bond the country in a way we haven’t witnessed for many years. There was a true buzz of patriotism and a feeling that we were making history. Everyone involved in London 2012 should be hugely proud of what was achieved. The thousands of gamesmakers were fantastic ambassadors for Britain. The country came together over sport and I hope it has inspired a generation. Sport has an amazing ability to bond people of different backgrounds, classes and abilities and we have a unique opportunity to build on what was achieved. It is often the case that teams can actually lose momentum after hosting the Games, often posting a poorer result as a team. I hope that we can be the first Olympic team to actually achieve a better result in Rio in 2016.
What is your advice for young athletes entering the sport of sailing?
I think they need to enjoy the sport above anything else. When you start out you have to have a passion for the sport, if you start to step up into more serious training and competition, then you require a huge amount of dedication in order to succeed. It requires long hours on the water and training on land, often away from home for competitions, so you need to make sure you have a love for what you are doing. I would say train hard. I can’t explain how crucial training and preparation are in order to succeed. The more time you put in on the water, the better your results will be.
[Kathimerini English Edition]