It's been a very long week for Ben Ainslie at the London Olympic 2012 Sailing Competition, his challenge to take Paul Elvstrom's title as the greatest ever Olympic sailor has been a nail-biting, frustration-filled epic.
It will be the story of these Games and it ended today in about as tense a fashion as was possible. Ask any group of sailors whether the medal race concept is a good idea and there will be marmite responses - people either love it, or hate it. Put the medal race very close to a shoreline, tucked into a corner with land on two sides and the marmite effect is amplified ten-fold.
On the pro-side, the 10,000 or so people who watched from the shoreline got a great show, as did anyone watching on television. Two medal races with the prizes changing hands in the last couple of hundred metres. On the anti-side, these intense, short races with big shifts of breeze are a lot more random than almost everything that goes before it. Should it really all come down to this?
Ben Ainslie watched the first victims in the Star medal race - his friends Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson. They've been dominant on the offshore course all week in big breeze and waves. Now, in the lighter air and flat water of the Nothe Course, they had to defend an eight point lead from Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada (BRA), with Sweden's Freddy Loof and Max Salminen only another four points behind.
Unsurprisingly, they focused on the Brazilian pair, and for two and a half of three laps it was going swimmingly. They were solidly fourth or fifth with Scheidt and Prada behind them. But the Swedes crept into the lead and Simpson and Percy slipped back on their approach to the final top mark and went around sixth - lose one more place and they would lose gold to the pair that had been in bronze. By the end of an agonising downwind, they were eighth - gold went to Sweden, silver to Britain and bronze to Brazil.
It cannot have been much fun for the Finn sailors to watch - a reminder of what their fate might have in store. The irony was underlined not long afterwards. Jonas Hogh-Christensen and Ben Ainslie went into the race winner-takes-gold - so long as they didn't end up so far back that Pieter-Jan Postma closed the points gap from third. It would be a match race, but there could be consequences if Postma won or got second.
Hogh-Christensen did a good job of giving Ainslie the slip in the pre-start, but the Brit had much the better first beat. Ainslie went round in fifth with both Postma and Hogh-Christensen behind him, then gybed away from the pack and went to second place using the same side of the run that had lost Percy and Simpson the gold medal half an hour earlier - oh, the irony. Oh, the shifts.
Ainslie's game plan went more or less as he hoped for another lap. He had his foot on Hogh-Christensen's throat at the back of the fleet, and Postma was unable to make any progress towards the second place he needed to take advantage of Ainslie and Hogh-Christensen's high scores. Until the last lap, when Postma got a shift and pulled into the leading bunch.
I'm not going to pretend to anything other than partisan support for Ben, and the last run was desperate to watch. Postma drew level with second placed Dan Slater of New Zealand as they approached the final mark. Postma took an all-or-nothing approach, went for the pass and fouled Slater. By the time he had done the penalty, second place was gone but so was the bronze medal, as France's Jonathan Lobert won the race to take it from the Dutchman. More to the point - that fourth historic gold medal was finally Ainslie's.
It would be hard to write a more dramatic script. It was an extraordinary way to end a great story, and it will be told over and over again. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I'd stake four years, never mind the twenty it's taken Ainslie to rack up his medal tally, and all the money, time and energy that goes with it on a race like that - but then, maybe I'm just getting old.
by Mark Chisnell
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7:02 PM Sun 5 Aug 2012GMT
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