Sailing in his fourth Olympic regatta, Ben Ainslie (GBR) took his fourth Olympic medal in fine style, winning gold in the Finn medal race in the best possible way. Leading from start to finish, he was never really challenged to take the race win. Silver went to Zach Railey (USA) after a solid race in sixth place, while Guillaume Florent (FRA) snatched the bronze away from Daniel Birgmark (SWE) with a fourth place race finish.
Olympic medals are what it is all about and Ben Ainslie made it quite clear from the outset that nothing less than gold would do. Zach Railey (USA) was the only sailor in the 10 boat Finn medal race who could take the 2008 Olympic Finn gold medal away from the Brit. However, it proved to be a somewhat more arduous task than anyone suspected.
The story of this medal race actually started yesterday with three failed attempts to get the final race in. Twice it was postponed in the closing seconds before the start gun, but the third time the fleet got away in 7 knots of breeze which lasted until the last quarter of the first windward leg. Then it started to drop, completely dying by the time the boats reached the leeward mark.
The big question everyone was asking before the race was would Railey bear the full brunt of Ainslie's tactics. The answer was an emphatic 'yes'. Railey's biggest danger however was that Ainslie would take him out of the race, while his rivals sailed away and he would end up out of the medals altogether.
On the first failed start Ainslie made his intentions quite clear, locking swords with Railey at 4 minutes to go. By the time the third start got underway, Railey had taken the battle to Ainslie and managed to escape a number of times before starting in clear air. However thinking he was over the line early, Railey went back - as did Ainslie and this allowed Ainslie to regain control.
Railey stood no chance. Initially tacked on by medal contender Guillaume Florent (FRA), Railey started to slip back and then Ainslie took control and herded Railey to the far right side of the course. The rest of the fleet rounded the first mark some 4 minutes ahead of Ainslie, after benefiting from better wind on the left of the course.
At the first mark, the fleet rounded in almost the reverse order of their overall positions: DEN, ESP, CRO, SLO, CAN, FRA, SWE, GBR and then USA, over five minutes behind the leader. Ainslie's plan was working perfectly, but fortunately for Railey his two main rivals for silver, Daniel Birgmark (SWE) and Florent were having a bad day as well. However at the gate, the leading boats drifted round in very little wind and soon after the race was abandoned. It was all back to square one for Ainslie.
Railey said after coming ashore that he was prepared for the onslaught, 'I think that what Ben did given the very shifty conditions was a good play and that was something that I was expecting. I am just trying to get in a good race and Ben is trying to prevent that with the conditions we had today. For tomorrow, I will go out and just try to have a good start and get in a solid race. But for sure the race committee made the correct call because we would not have made it back upwind and back down to the finish with a fair race.'
Florent stated, 'The conditions were not up to an Olympic final. The racing area is already not easy to race but this was impossible. Luckily, the race committee took the right decision. It is not fun to do our sport in these conditions and I suppose it is the same for the spectators. I wasn't in good place after the first lap but everyone stopped at the same time. Anything could have happened!' So, Sunday morning arrived. Round two.
The Finns were second up after the Ynglings in winds of 20 knots. Though the Ynglings got their race in first, the Finns were sent back to shore as the weather and visibility rapidly deteriorated.
You couldn't make up this stuff. The frustration of the sailors, matched by the frustration of journalists and viewers worldwide, was almost palpable as they headed for home with the medal race still not completed. Some were asking would it ever be over?
But the weather improved and the AP finally came down again at 15.45 local time for the fifth attempt at a start. This time it got away first time in 15-18 knot winds and the 'O' flag raised for free pumping on downwind legs for the first and only time in this regatta.
Ainslie waited until the last moment before attacking and slid under Railey with about 30 seconds to go. Railey tacked off and started in last place, but in clear air. After a few tacks being exchanged out of the start, Ainslie was clearly keeping Railey in his sights, yet a repeat of yesterday's tactics was not necessary as the Brit was soon in the lead.
Favouring the right hand side of the course Ainslie rounded the top mark ahead, with Florent rounding in second from the left. Positions at the first mark were: GBR, FRA, DEN, CAN, ESP, SLO, USA, SWE, POL and CRO. Railey was still in silver and Florent had moved up to bronze.
Perfect Finn sailing conditions enabled the sailors to really strut their stuff downwind. Florent and Jonas Hoegh-Christensen (DEN) gained slightly on Ainslie on the downwind, while Railey moved up one to sixth, keeping his main opposition Daniel Birgmark (SWE) behind him.
Most of the fleet favoured the left hand side of the track on the final leg with Ainslie extending slightly to lead round the final windward mark of the regatta. There were very few changes on the final leg. Railey was still holding into silver while Florent was comfortably in the bronze. The only real drama was Florent dropping to fourth and Birgmark moving up to seventh right at the finish. In terms of points this meant that Florent took the bronze medal off Birgmark on the result on the medal race, both finishing on 58 points.
While Ainslie took the gold medal in the best possible way with a race win, a sixth place for Railey was enough for him to retain the silver medal position with ease. Ainslie was in fact using the same hull that won him gold in Athens four years ago, while Florent was using his six year old boat and mast.
If anyone needs a masterclass in how to demoralise the opposition, then Ben Ainslie is the perfect tutor, having won the gold medal by an incredible 22 points. In four out of the nine races sailed, he turned a middle or low top ten result into a race winning position on the downwind legs. In the first race he was unlucky, dropping from first to tenth in the closing stages, but his scoreline of four race wins, two seconds, a fourth and a 10th is a graphic indication of why he was the favourite to take the gold medal again.
What is perhaps more remarkable about this regatta than Ben Ainslie winning his third consecutive gold medal is the number of pre-regatta favourites who didn't figure at all in the racing. Some of them didn't even make the medal race including the silver medalist here last year Pieter-Jan Postma (NED) who never really found any form, Emilios Papathanasiou (GRE), always a light wind threat and Dan Slater (NZL), silver medalist at the worlds this year. Meanwhile world number one Høgh Christensen and the 2004 Silver medalist and 2007 World Champion Rafa Trujillo (ESP) went into the medal race having lost all chances of winning a medal.
Both the medalists behind Ainslie were given outside chances of medaling before the event, but it is still quite a surprise to see them there at the end of what has been a very trying and testing week.
In winning his third consecutive Olympic gold medal, Ainslie is now the joint second most decorated sailor at the Olympics - ever. He has also earned himself a place in British Olympic history as the most decorated of all British Olympic sailors, an honour that has sat with Rodney Pattisson's two golds and a