LONDON (Reuters) - Ben Ainslie could not have picked a more fitting location or moment to find the motivation to challenge for a third successive Olympic gold in China.
With Admiral Nelson, one of Britain’s seafaring heroes, gazing down from his plinth, Ainslie was one of thousands of flag-waving supporters who celebrated in Trafalgar Square when Britain were awarded the 2012 Games on a sunny July day in 2005.
The outpouring of emotion convinced Ainslie that he should defend his title in Qingdao and, if successful, become Britain’s greatest Olympic sailor.
“I was helping out a little bit with the bid on a small scale and I was in Trafalgar Square when the announcement was made. To be perfectly honest I’d almost thought that my Olympic days were over really,” Ainslie, 31, said.
“I was involved with the America’s Cup and working hard on that but the buzz that went around the square when they announced London had got the Games was just amazing and for me it was an inspiration to get back involved with Olympic sailing and to try and be there.”
A silver medalist in the Laser class on his Games debut in Atlanta in 1996, Ainslie went one better in Sydney four years later and, after switching to the heavier Finn boat, took another gold in Athens in 2004.
Such is his dominance in the Finn — he is world champion five times — that few would bet against this steely-eyed sailor claiming another gold in Qingdao and surpassing the achievement of Briton Rodney Pattisson, who won two golds and one silver between 1968-76 in the Flying Dutchman class.
“Rodney has been a hero to at least my generation, if not a generation before, someone to aspire to, so it will be a huge honor to go a step further,” said Ainslie. “It’s an honor to be up there with him.”
After winning gold in Athens, Ainslie’s focus switched to the America’s Cup, joining Team New Zealand as an afterguard member and ‘B-boat’ helmsman.
The New Zealanders lost out to Alinghi in Valencia but the thrill of big-boat racing has whetted Ainslie’s appetite for more.
He will skipper Britain’s Team Origin in the 33rd America’s Cup although that event, scheduled for 2009, is currently surrounded by uncertainty following legal wrangling between Alinghi and American syndicate BMW Oracle.
“The America’s Cup was an amazing experience and it was great being part of a bigger team but to go back out to the small boats was a relief, very refreshing,” he said.
Ainslie picked up where he had left off, showing he had lost none of his finesse by getting the better of the promising Ed Wright in a head-to-head selection battle at the Sydney Regatta.
“It was a relief to qualify as Ed has done very well the last few seasons,” said Ainslie.
Ainslie, with back-to-back wins in two test regattas in Qingdao, is favorite to win gold again in what should be another successful Games for the British sailing team.
While pollution has been a primary concern for athletes in Beijing, unpredictable conditions at the sailing venue in Qingdao, on the north-east coast of China, have occupied the minds of Olympic sailors.
The venue performed well in test events though last weekend city officials appealed for help in clearing up a severe outbreak of algae which had seeped into the training area and blocked some sailing routes.
The expected light winds in Qingdao have increased fears that the number of races could be reduced.
“There will be periods of luck but generally luck, like in most sports, tends to even itself out,” Ainslie said.
“There will be races where you lose a lot of ground at a certain point but from the experience we’ve had there from the last couple of years you are just as likely to gain it back again, if not more if you keep your head.
“It’s a difficult venue. In sailing you have always got nature which has its play on the event and will probably have more of a say in this venue because it’s generally quite light winds, a lot of current, a lot of tide, it’s quite unpredictable weather and it will cause a few upsets for sure and it will be hard to be consistent in a series.
“Having said that it’s the same for everyone and I would be disappointed if any sailor came away from China saying they had been done in by the conditions.”
Editing by Clare Fallon