Ben Ainslie takes his fourth Gold medal and enters the history books
In the first medal race of the day the danger for British success came from behind, in the second, the risk was in front but in both cases the racing was utterly nail biting.
But in the end Ben Ainslie won his fourth Olympic gold medal to become the most successful Olympic sailor of all time.
The race between Big Ben and the Great Dane started with some match racing style lead and follow as Ainslie chased the Dane around the committee boat in the pre-start. Hogh-Christensen did an excellent job of staying out of Ainslie’s reach.
By the start Ainslie had the upper hand over the Dane but he had nearly sunk himself in the dirty air of others. This was going to be a struggle to get out of the pack.
At the first mark Ben was 5th with the Dane in 9th but by the bottom of the first downwind leg Ben had pumped himself through to second,.
While we have been used to seeing Ben win from the back of the fleet, it was suspected that Ben would be keen to win from the front under the gaze of 4,500 spectators on Nothe and many many more around the shores and the country. His plan was playing out.
But by the last lap of the race the wheels looked dangerously close to coming off as he found himself second to last, the Dane in last place. Having been caught out on the notoriously shifty course he had been forced to execute Plan B which was to cover the Dane at all costs and hope that the Dutchman Pieter van Postma wouldn’t get to the front of the pack. But the Dutchman had climbed to 3rd. He only needed to get to second to take Gold from Ben and was metres away from doing it.
The breeze had softened sufficiently for the race committee to ban pumping on the downwind leg taking away one of Ainslie’s biggest strengths. Nails were now being chewed down to the flesh.
Postma had now pulled up into second, he now had Gold with just a few hundred metres to go. But a wind shift to the left as they approached the leeward mark meant that it was now very important for the Dutchman to get inside the Kiwi Dan Slater at the leeward mark, But it was a high risk strategy that backfired. Postma’s boat touched the Kiwi and the Dutchaman was forced to take penalty turns, twisting himself out of the medals with each turn.
With Postma now in 5th Ainslie had now returned to the Gold medal spot despite still trailing in 9th.
In the short reach to the finish line, nothing changed in the positions.
As Ainslie celebrated, the Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen who had come so close to derailing Ainslie’s plans all week, collapsed in despair in his boat.
Minutes after Ainslie crossed the line his coach was interviewed.
“Fantastic,” said a beaming David Howlett. “He does not want to go through this again and neither do I!”
And then Ben.
“Its times like this when you are supposed to come out with something clever to say,” he said clearly on the edge of controlling his emotions.
“I’m so glad for all the people who’ve supported me over the years. I can tell you listening to a crowd like that makes a difference.
“After six races was in a bit of trouble earlier this week and had to turn things around. I can’t believe it
“This race course is one of the hardest I’ve ever sailed on and I do not want to do anything like that again. I’m so glad to have done it!
“It’s been incredibly hard there’s been a huge amount of pressure and it’s been the hardest couple of weeks of my life, but you just have to deal with it.
Would he be in Rio for 2016?
“You never say never, but I don’t think I can sail one of these again. “I’d be very surprised if you see me in Rio.”
Earlier in the day the Stars had kicked off the medal race day which ended in a crushing Blow for Brits Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson and a spectacular victory for Swedes Fredrik Loof and his crew Max Salminen.
As they crossed the finish line, no one knew who had taken the Gold medal, the results were that close. For the Swedes, winning the medal race was never going to be enough on its own, the Brits Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson had to finish worse than 6th to lose the top slot that they had held throughout the event.
Loof and his crew Salminen led the race from the start but it was what happened behind them that mattered.
For Percy and Simpson, fighting their way out of the mid fleet was their biggest issue after a good start and throughout the race. Rounding the first mark in fifth meant that they had just two places grace over the Swedes. A brief foray into fourth by the end of the downwind leg was the furthest up the ten boat field that they could get before dropping back into fifth by the second windward mark.
But it was the final run to the finish that caused the biggest stress for the British pair.
On the beat to the final windward mark they had dropped to 7th momentarily and had dropped out of the medals, a hint of how easy it would be for Percy and Simpson’s Gold medal hopes to be denied. Few saw the scare because by the mark they had clawed back to 6th.
But the final run demonstrated the kind of conditions that all these sailors fear, shifty and gusty with the breeze at just 10-11 knots on such a short course it’s very difficult to make a comeback. As the breeze deserted Percy and Simpson the picture looked grim but with the fleet spread across the race course it was impossible to tell how the final few seconds would pan out. Even the television coverage said it was too close to call.
But as an eerie silence swept across the race course area every British supporter felt queasy, the Nothe was silent, at least that’s how it sounded from the water. Percy and Simpson had lost Gold but taken Silver as the Swedes took a well deserved Gold.
The tables had been turned from 2008 after the British duo had stolen the Gold in the closing moments of that race. It was the Swedes turn this time.
“We feel a little robbed, but it’s our fault and we have to take it on the chin,” said Percy minutes after the race. “We’re hurting so much inside but it helps to know that so many people have been supporting us. At the moment it is probably the only thing that puts a smile on our face,” he continued as they passed the spectators on the Nothe.
“It’s a lottery some times here on the Nothe,” said his crew Simpson. “But fair play to the Swedes.”
A cruel blow to a team that has kept its composure all week and sailed better than they have done for many months before.