Perhaps it was destiny or perhaps it was just a great story waiting to be told. If it was fiction, then it would have been a little far-fetched. The story of Ben Ainslie and Jonas Høgh-Christensen over the past 10 days has enthralled the world’s sailing fans as the two sailors battled it out for the Finn gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition.
In one corner, one of the best dinghy sailors the world has ever seen. In the other, the Danish pretender, fighting to defend a record held by one of his countrymen for 52 years. There was a lot at stake. One more gold medal for Ainslie would mean he would surpass Paul Elvstrøm’s record of four gold medals between 1948 and 1960. Høgh-Christensen felt it was his destiny to stop that happening.
First blood went to Høgh-Christensen, claiming two race wins on the opening day. Many pundits seemed happy that Ainslie hadn’t made his traditional mess of the first day. He came out with two second places, and that was a good start for him.
The Dane continued to dominate on the second day with Ainslie dropping to third in the overall table. Ainslie came ashore saying he was angry and normally that was enough for him to find some extra inspiration. But it didn’t quite work and Høgh-Christensen notched up two more victories over Ainslie before the mid-competition break.
Høgh-Christensen seemed unstoppable, even coming back in race four to finish in seventh after a huge mistake at the start where he hit the pin end boat and started dead last. Even after this, he still beat Ainslie. In fact Ainslie hadn’t beaten him in all six races so far and the British camp were starting to get worried.
Ainslie began to turn it around in the second half of the week and his inevitable struggle back into contention gradually gathered momentum. Four races later, including two race wins and a few mistakes from Høgh-Christensen, and the scorecard was level. In terms of races it was still 7-3 to the Dane but it was going to end with a winner takes all medal race thriller on the unpredictable Nothe course area.
The only thing stopping an all-out match race was the Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma. He could still win if the two main protagonists were at the back. And incredibly, that is the way it played out. Ainslie probably overdid the match race tactics, but had little choice. If Høgh-Christensen got ahead, it was game over, so the first job was to keep him behind.
In doing so they ended up right at the back while Postma sailed his own race. In the randomness of the Nothe course area he found a gift of a shift to move into the top three. Luckily for Ainslie, Postma then got greedy and fouled another boat while trying to move into second place just 50 metres from the finish. That foul gave the gold to Ainslie and cost Postma a medal. If Postma hadn’t fouled the other boat, it could have been a very different story. But the gold was Ainslie’s and the history books needed rewriting again.
In the run up to this tortuous week, the only person who seemed to doubt that a fourth consecutive gold medal was on the way was Ainslie himself. The world put him on a pedestal and he could do no wrong. Whatever he did, whatever his results, he would always win through in the end. That was his nature. That was his destiny. And that was what [almost] everyone believed.
Shortly after the event had finished he revealed the pain he had been enduring all week in his back. It was obvious something wasn’t right with Ainslie all through the week and during his live TV interview on the water immediately after the medal race he looked distinctly uncomfortable. The pain killers had taken away his pain, but they had also perhaps taken away his edge. He described it as the hardest two weeks of his life.
The vast majority of his fans and supporters around the world could not conceive of any other alternative outcome than a fifth Olympic medal and a fourth consecutive gold, and, in the end, they were not disappointed, even though they were put through the mill on the way. Despite a lot of support for Høgh-Christensen, there was always the nagging feeling that this result was Ainslie’s destiny. It had been 16 years in the making, starting with that crucial Laser silver medal in 1996. Now it had come full circle. The boy was now the master.
Was there ever any doubt? – Robert Deaves.