When Ben Ainslie was red-flagged in Miami he became the latest pro to fall foul of the propulsion police – going from ooch to ouch with an illegal body movement. Is the four-time Olympic medallist vulnerable?

So, it came as a bit of a shock. How could someone of Ben Ainslie’s stature and experience find himself compromised at the first big hoorah of a crucial Olympic year by getting a red card – or two yellow flags to be precise – for sailing his Finn illegally?

He’s been at the top of his game for years, having made an art out of escaping the umpire’s attention when his over-exuberant pumping, rocking or ooching has got out of control (which occasionally it has).

For those of you not yet inducted into the ways of the propulsion police, pumping (where up and down body movement is used to move a sail) and rocking (the repeated rolling of the boat through body movement) or ooching (a weird term for sudden forward body movement) are sometimes allowed in certain wind ranges, sometimes not.

Ben Ainslie’s disqualification from one race in the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta in January cost him the Gold medal. The question is whether it was down to a lapse in concentration rooted in a lack of racing time in the Finn or a sign that his judgment over Rule 42 issues was showing signs of wear. Worse still, could it lead to the squandering of an opportunity for a fourth Olympic Gold medal

Career sinkers

Shabby or illegal propulsion techniques have scuppered many a career. Paige Railey of USA dropped from being the number one Laser Radial sailor in the world to 45th after she was flagged three times while defending her world title in 2006, just weeks after she was named ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year.

Finland’s Sari Multala lost her Olympic trials in 2008 because she got two flags in a year. And, of course, Emilios Papathanasiou, the Finn sailor from Greece, was flagged three times in the first two days of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which meant the end of his regatta.

Papathanasiou had previous form in Rule 42 violations. At an earlier regatta he posted a message on the official noticeboard requesting the contact details of an umpire – he was preparing for legal action after being flagged three times by him. A requirement for two umpires to agree on a breach was implemented shortly afterwards and, despite 57 penalties in 88 races at the Beijing Olympics, umpires concede there are now fewer penalties being imposed.

Sailors are pretty canny over what they can get away with and accuse umpires of being fickle. Umpires might not spot every single infringement in early rounds, but they claim that the ratio of officials to athletes in the medal races is so high that poor habits will be outed.

No need to worry about Ainslie’s error, then, because it was a vital part of rediscovering his boundaries and served as a timely wake-up call. No danger either of him going into defensive mode.
As for the athletes who are prone to erring under pressure, have been badly coached or want to grab a handy excuse for poor performances, watch closely as their Olympic preparations falter.