Never has the UK seen a crowd as huge as this for a sailing event. Ben Ainslie's duel was a thriller
In the end it was a quiet kill by Ben Ainslie. There was nothing showy about the way he won his fourth Gold medal, but it was a breathtaking dispatch of his rival Jonas Hogh-Christensen.
It could easily have been a seaside roller coaster, but on a perfect, sunny afternoon Ainslie made it all look deceptively leisured. It was only when he finished that we heard his admission this course had been the hardest he’d sailed on in his life.
For the crowds in Weymouth it was something they will never see the like of again, and they know it. They were here to savour the town’s (and probably their own) first medal winning experience as well as the moment in history when Ainslie tried to wrest his fourth Gold.
To witness it they poured into town and filled every cliff and cove, four or five deep everywhere.
There were so many on the beach that the gates of the site had to be closed for people’s safety. The screens around were torn down to allow those left outside a view. Even there, people crammed up for a glimpse.
I have never, ever seen multitudes in the UK in these numbers for sailing, not even when Ellen MacArthur sent Falmouth crazy with her solo round the world record. They make me think of the throngs who come to ports in France when some piece of sailing history is made, a phenomenon that until now has seemed inconceivable here.
That is primarily the pulling power of the Olympics, and wrapped up in that Ben Ainslie’s skirmish for Gold with the Danish sailor Jonas Hoegh-Christensen. The drama behind it and the undertone of a grudge match confected a terrific story. It was a proper showdown between two wily gunslingers.
Only one place separated them going into the short, swift medal race and Ainslie was the one trailing. Everyone kept reminding us in their commentaries that the much shorter odds were on Ben.
When he claimed the right hand side of the course and apparently ignored Hoegh-Christensen going left on the first beach, your heart raced. Ben’s move looked so certain it seemed almost cocksure.
I got the impression a majority of the crowd on the seafront outside the Nothe ticket site didn’t fully understand the intricacies of sailing and they had no audio or radio commentary to help – what a shame and a disregard for the non-ticketed fans; that was badly done, chaps – but still they yelled at each move of Ainslie’s. “GB, GB, GB, GB.”
As Ainslie did a lap of honour holding aloft a flare, they stopped mid-bite in their picnics, silenced their dogs, looked up from fishing in the rock pools with their kids, trod water if they were swimming and all the other things that had coalesced around the sailing Olympic’s Super Sunday, and a ripple of applause round the bay turned into a communal roar of delight.
What a sailor. Put it on a postcard and send it to all your friends: ‘Wish you were here’.
We beach fans are also thinking of another phrase we think is fully deserved: ‘Arise, Sir Ben’.
Sir Big Ben.