Tuesday, 27 November 2012

What next for Sir Ben??

So his glittering Olympic career has come to an end and what an epic monumental success the past 16 years have been with precious few failures or setbacks apart from those minor injury concerns that come with getting on a bit.

Four golds, a silver and universal recognition, which is perhaps his greatest achievement since he has triumphed in a minority sport where headlines are almost impossible to command.

Footballers just have to sneeze or behave badly to merit blanket media coverage but a sailor has to do a heck of a lot more, like devote 16 years of your life (and the rest) to the exclusion of all else to training and competing as Ainslie has done or beat yourself up on the high seas, at the expense of soul and sanity, as Dame Ellen MacArthur did during her extraordinary world record in B & Q back in 2005.

Ainslie was caught out once for behaving badly when in December last year, he had a run in with a cameraman who had been following his racing much too closely. It prompted an incandescent rage and the sort of colourful invective that Ainslie is renowned for when the red mist descends in combat.

We saw it again in Weymouth in August when he needed something extra to fend off the mighty challenge from the Great Dane Jonas Hoegh-Christensen.

For seasoned Ainslie watchers, the temper tantrum in Perth was pretty normal but what was unusual was that his actions were recorded on film. Not only was he disqualified but in an instant, his public cover as a courteous mild-mannered sort was blown and the aggressive, gladiatorial, passionate athlete that his medals always demonstrated, was exposed.

Inevitably the public was immediately engaged - sport is all about personality - and his big hoorah in Weymouth became compelling especially after he was beaten in Weymouth six weeks before the Olympic Games by his younger British rival Giles Scott. Would that blazing fury cost him the fourth gold and a slice of history or could he hold it all together?

We all know what happened next so it was predictable that Ainslie would call time on that career after the Olympics but what is intriguing is the timing of his announcement, some two months later.

Nothing has changed since August 5th when he won his fifth medal to become the greatest Olympic sailor in history. His claim on the British Finn spot at Rio 2016 always looked tenuous due to the rise of the  formidable Scott.

The Star class, the preserve of his gold medal winning chums Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson that Ainslie was hoping to muscle in on for Rio 2016, is still on the scrapheap. His AC45 campaign which he is hoping to turn into an America's Cup campaign has a sponsor but until next year, no competition since the next regatta is not until April 2013.

Maybe the letter from Buckingham Palace has finally arrived which means he can ease up in his 'public' duties and concentrate on the America's Cup, which if successful will bring more glory to Britain and make him very rich.

Already honoured, Ainslie was hankering after the knighthood and my guess is that he has heard it is on its way, as he so richly deserves.  

This is what I wrote during the Olympics - before Super Sunday - about Ainslie calling it quits.

"OK so I have no confirmation of this and he always trots out the ‘never say never’ line when asked about it but my instinct is that Ben Ainslie will quit Olympic sailing after Sunday's sensational showdown at London 2012 with Jonas Hoegh-Christensen from Denmark.

Let me explain why. He has made no secret of the fact he has found the physical demands of Finn training and racing incredibly hard in this Olympic cycle. The introduction of free downwind pumping in the class has made a massive difference to the fitness levels these guys need to consistently win races at this level.

Ainslie has an aggressive style of pumping – just watching him wears me out frankly. And when you hear Rebecca Adlington say at the age of 23, she can no longer compete seriously with the 15 and 16 year olds coming through, you realise how tricky it must be for the 35 year-old Ainslie to match the strapping young talent in the Finn class.

 To say he has worked bloody hard is an understatement. He has been grinding away on the treadmill day after day after day since late 2010 when Keith Mills revealed he was disbanding his America’s Cup syndicate Team Origin.

That decision while gut wrenching, freed him up for the gym and from that point, Ainslie who was seriously underweight and underfit for the Finns, devoted his waking hours to beefing up every physiology element that could be measured.  

He is now around 15 kgs heavier than he was then – but still quite slight for a Finn sailor – which has been vital to his campaign for gold, especially in the stronger Weymouth breezes.

The chances of him wanting to do all that again, when the incredibly talented Giles Scott is waiting in the wings, are nil. And besides, getting his fourth gold medal in front of a British crowd would have meant EVERYTHING to this fiercely patriotic bloke.

As a script, it could not have been written better and his final Olympic chapter will make a belter of a climax. A postscript in Rio 2016 might prove woefully limp as a wrap!

He has also laid the foundations for the next phase of his career and will be off as soon as the Olympics are over to get started. No professional sailing career is complete without a win in the America’s Cup and although the event is not so coveted as it once was, Ainslie is intent on having the Auld Mug in his massive trophy cabinet.

It will take a lot of effort and support and money and although his Ben Ainslie Racing campaign has been launched, he needs some big sponsorship bucks to make it successful . That will become his priority and will fill every waking hour. He will also need to get up to speed on the AC45s – his multihull experience has been limited – but that won’t take long for someone of his remarkable talents.

With a fourth gold medal to add to the silver from Atlanta, he will become the greatest Olympic sailor in history, which reflects those remarkable talents and 20 years of sacrifice, effort and endeavour.

It is difficult to think of one reason why he would continue in Olympic sailing and in some ways, it is surprising he has not announced his retirement already but then, you can see why he would want to keep his options open. 

He is the most marketable commodity in British sailing, perhaps in world sailing, and it would be daft to pass up any opportunity to add to his growing fortune. He may want another Aston Martin in the near future and do away with his trusty Volvo, you never know. 

His interests outside of sailing are growing too. He has taken up flying and wants to get his pilot’s licence and is mad for motor racing. With his intensive gym programme tapered, he can devote more time to these leisurely activities though it difficult to see them taking over.

And of course he wants a family and they don’t happen by magic so that too will take up time. His type of Olympic obsession excludes normal activities but the years are passing and so perhaps are the opportunities for a match made in heaven. Many men have had two wives by the time they are 35 for heaven’s sake.

But I’m probably wrong about all of this. It has been known."

Friday, 9 November 2012

Sir Keith plans his coup d'etat

There were only a couple of French journalists at Sir Keith Mills’ new launch in Les Sables d'Olonne this morning which was surprising bearing in mind that our favourite squillionaire is planning a coup d’etat that could turn French sailing on its head.

Keith’s plans are ambitious, requiring the sort of resources (ie cash!) that very few in the sailing business have access to but if they come off, they will give IMOCA sailing a massive boost which could make a big difference to the sport the world, except maybe in France.

Just in case you didn’t hear, Keith has persuaded all 90 members of IMOCA to sign away the commercial rights to the class in return for a heavy investment of several millions of euros to get the class organised, properly funded and all buffed and booootiful so that sponsors come knocking.

Before he set up his new company Open Sports Management, he said he needed unanimous backing from the IMOCA members and he got it even though it means these short-handed affairs, which have been a strictly French preserve since the year dot, might no longer be dominated by the French. Oh la la!

So now he is putting together a hotshot events and commercial team to promote the class around the world, possibly expand the IMOCA event schedule and try and put a stamp of certainty on the whole circuit.

In an interview I did with him on Wednesday, he spoke loosely of how he aimed to do this: Here goes......

“We are going to try and package this sport up in a way that will make it more appealing to a broader audience,” Mills said.

“If we can engage a large number of people, we can get more sponsors interested and if we have more sponsors, we can get more teams funded.

“If there are more teams, more ports want to have you so it is a virtuous circle but it starts with making the product much more accessible. At the moment, sailing is not so accessible so we have to use more technology on the boats and package it up in a way that has never been done before.”

He is convinced he is onto something.

“I wouldn’t be investing millions of euros into a project if I didn’t think it was commercially viable and if I didn’t think it could succeed.”

Not all Keith’s businesses turn to gold but most of them do and the ones that look flawed from pretty early on, such as Team Origin, get shelved pronto.

Incidentally, he told me the story over how the decision to pull the plug on TO unravelled. If you remember, he was in Paris having a meeting with Sir Russell Coutts on the Monday night and reports suggested that when he left, he was all gung-ho about the next America’s Cup and definitely up for it.

Next morning however, we were shocked to hear that Team Origin was no more and had been disbanded. 

But whatever happened to cause such a sudden volte face?

Well apparently Keith recorded the whole meeting and when he got home to London, he sat down with a large whisky and listened to the recording and realised what he’d heard that night was nothing more than a load of bull. 

OK, those are my words not his but the tape made him realise how little substance there was to the AC presentation so in the morning, he rang his chum Charles Dunstone, who had also committed to load up the Team Origin coffers and told him what he’d found. That’s fine by me, said Charles so two hours later, everyone was called in and given the bad news.

That’s what I like about Sir Keith. He’s a no bullshit sort of bloke who puts his money where his bouche  is....and grabs it back when other bouches will not ferme! Bit like Sir Larry really.....which makes us wonder when he’ll be pulling his plug!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Does it really matter who wins the Vendee Globe?

There are not many press conferences in sport where you sit and look at the athletes and seriously wonder if you will ever see them again.

But the Vendee Globe skippers press conference in Les Sables d’Olonne every four years is one such gig. 
Gathered together yesterday, all  scruffy and wrinkly (not our Sam of course), knackered from all their boat preparations and media obligations (yawn!) they laughed and joked and did their best to come up with the perfect soundbyte ahead of their three month self-imposed carbon confinement.

Scruffy, craggy and BRAVE Vendee skippers!!
But inevitably there was an unmistakeable nervy feel to the humour and there is no getting away from the fact that on Saturday, these 20 courageous or deranged skippers (depending on how you see it)  will venture out on the most difficult and dangerous race track in modern sport.  It’s a crazy crazy business but thank god they want to do it because their derring-do makes for compulsive viewing.

Fifteen of them have done it before. Mike Golding, 52, and Dominique Wavre, 57, have both done it three times but for the new kids on the block, including the much touted (and some say complete lunatic) Francois Gabard, the next three months will be a life-changing experience, however it ends up.

Let’s not think about what might go wrong – it’s been 15 years since anyone died in this race – but it is always salutary to remind ourselves of the high attrition rate to make sure we fully understand the risk these guys take when they head off.

Since the first race in 1989, 116 skippers have taken part. Only 60 of them have managed to cross the finish line with 54 either retiring or being disqualified and two losing their lives. In 2004-05, the attrition rate was a massive 65%.

The best performing Brit, from the 14 who have competed was Ellen MacArthur who took part in 2000-01 and finished second, behind Michel Desjoyeaux. She was only the fourth British sailor to enter. She was also the first British woman and at 24, the youngest ever skipper. Who can ever forget her triumph and her agony.

Before her was Pete Goss, who rescued Raphael Dinelli and had to undertake some stomach churning do it yourself surgery, to his arm I think.   

And of course there was Tony Bullimore who capsized in the Southern Ocean and survived for five days in his upturned boat before being rescued by the Australian Navy.

Before Pete Goss was Nigel Burgess, who in 1992-93 became the first sailor to die in the race.

Nigel Burgess who died in 1992
 Three Vendee Globes, four compelling stories and lorry loads of pluck and luck, death and despair, fame and misfortune, the very reasons why hundreds of thousands of people (no kidding) turn up in Les Sables d’Olonne each race to see the boats and catch a glimpse of the sailors.

It is impossible for any Brit to comprehend the levels of interest in this event. The French sailors are action hero celebrities attracting massive crowds and big time sponsors. Even our very own Sam Davies gets mobbed. I was walking back with her yesterday and could not believe the attention she was getting – she had to stay out of the main thoroughfares in the interests of all our safety. It was remarkable.

More than 600,000 people have turned up so far and organisers are expecting thousands more at the start on Saturday, either watching from the shore or taking to their boats to be in the thick of things. 

To have 20 boats on the start line when the recession in Europe continues to bit hard and deep, is also remarkable. We worked out that between 70 and 100 million euros are tied up in this event though Gamesa, Golding’s sponsor has had to rein in their activities here on account of their laying off workers back home in Spain.  

Tony Bullimore rescued in 1996

But who will win? Some reckon it doesn’t really matter because the thing about the Vendee Globe is that it is a bloody good story first and a sporting competition second. Seeing  Alessandro Di Benetto’s tiny little 6.5m parked up in the Basin, complete with the jury rig he built to round Cape Horn during his circumnavigation tells us everything we need to know about the sailors that compete in the Vendee Globe.


God speed......