Ben Ainslie's Olympic retirement could lift him from great to greatest

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To anyone who witnessed the superhuman effort required by Ben Ainslie to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and sail his boat Rita to his fourth successive gold medal off the Weymouth coast in August, his decision to retire from Olympic sailing will not have been a surprise.

Afterwards, the most successful Olympic sailor talked of the sacrifices required to first of all make the team and then haul himself back into contention for a record-breaking fourth consecutive win, to add to a silver from his first Games in Atlanta.

Some were beginning to write Ainslie off when, suffering from recurrent injuries and lying behind the Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen in the Finn class after six races, the sheer determination and bloody mindedness that had been a hallmark of his sailing career helped him secure victory amid jubilant flag-waving scenes.

It was a battle that recalled his epic rivalry with the Robert Scheidt in his first two Games, competing in the Laser class. Having narrowly lost out at his first Games in Atlanta as a 19-year-old, he then overcame the Brazilian four years later following a titanic tussle.

"His career been marked by application and determination from such a young age. That was one of the best races [in Sydney] that anyone can remember. I can remember being lifted head high from the slipway," said Team GB's Olympic sailing manager Stephen Park, linking his first Olympic gold and his last.

"That's the mark of a true champion, even when things aren't going your way to come back and win. Six races down in this Games, some people were thinking it was the end. The level of determination and application has been pretty crucial. The level of passion has been incredible."

It is perhaps only now that he has announced his retirement from the Olympic version of the sport that the magnitude of his achievement will be appreciated. Denied the multiple medals on offer in other sports, and facing a huge battle every four years to claim the single spot on offer in his class, Ainslie's run of medals across five Games ensures he must feature alongside Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes and Bradley Wiggins in any debate over Britain's greatest ever Olympian.

Perhaps because it is always geographically distant from the heart of the action, Ainslie's achievements haven't always received the recognition they deserved, although the International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge – himself a former Olympic sailor – has always singled out his achievements for praise.

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