#SJA2013: Why I am voting for … Ben Ainslie

SJA member JAMES TONEY wants to put America’s Cup-winner Ben Ainslie on a pedestal, give him the multi-billion budget to win the Cup for Britain, and to win the greatest prize of all, to be acclaimed as our 2013 Sportsman of the Year

Ben Ainslie with the America's Cup: possibly the biggest prize in world sport, physically and financially
Ben Ainslie with the America’s Cup: possibly the biggest prize in world sport, physically and financially

Boris Johnson is running an advertising campaign across London’s underground network which asks weary travellers to text in their suggestions for who should next occupy Trafalgar Square’s vacant fourth plinth.

Given its proximity to Nelson and the recent comparisons, perhaps it’s time to commission a bust of Sir Ben Ainslie, our most decorated seafarer since Admiral Horatio and be done with the arguments.

Ainslie’s America’s Cup heroics, when he inspired Oracle Team USA to sail back from the dead sea in what was one of the sporting comebacks of all-time, make him a hot property and probably the closest thing a sailor has got to being a household name since Sir Francis Chichester.

Sir Steve Redgrave once joked that it wasn’t until after the Atlanta Olympics, when he’d won his fourth consecutive rowing gold medal, that he was recognised or indeed made any money from his sport.

Ainslie was certainly well recompensed for his services by Oracle team owner Larry Ellison – a man with a fortune of £23 billion and counting – but in Ainslie’s case it has taken one silver, four golds and playing a part in sporting history to finally become an A-Lister.

The Auld Mug was first contested on the waters off the Isle of Wight in 1851 and Britain has never won it – indeed we’re 16-times losing finalists, which should make French tennis player Julien Benneteau feel better after he just lost his ninth ATP Tour final.

Great Britain last had a boat in the challenger series – which precedes the main event – in 2003 but has not competed in the America’s Cup itself for nearly half a century. Even landlocked Switzerland has a better record.

But the event is now a sporting arms race. The regatta was described as being like “standing in a cold shower tearing up $100 bills”. It’s now a plaything of billionaires, not millionaires, and big brands with pockets right down to their deck shoes.

New Zealand’s government backed their team, beaten by Oracle in gripping style, with £18 million in taxpayers’ money – and it proved a popular policy, even in defeat.

Considering elite funding agency UK Sport is pumping £350 million into the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic cycle, surely a similar contribution to Ainslie’s campaign for Britain to win the America’s Cup might not be such a stretch?

Baroness Campbell, the departing chair of UK Sport, was the architect of the much-admired “no compromise” investment principle for lottery money and no-one sums up that attitude more than Ainslie.

Campbell’s successor is Rod Carr, a man credited with making Britain a top sailing nation as a former coach, performance director and chief executive of the Royal Yachting Association.

And if London 2012 proved anything it’s the nation can rally behind a team – even in sports that are far from mainstream – and take pride in the fact their hard-owned cash has played a key part in the success.

So Ainslie’s challenge just to get on the water, in an event where commercial strategy is as important as on water tactics, would probably equal his four Olympic and 10 world titles combined.

But don’t forget how big the prize could be if does and if he wins.

When Valencia hosted the America’s Cup in 2007, it brought benefits of £1.4 billion and an overall economic benefit of £2.7 billion to the Spanish port. Do the sums and that’s a much better return on investment than London got from staging the Olympics, with its £9.3 billion budget.

Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton tried and failed five times to win the Cup but built his reputation as the world’s most cheerful loser and made Lipton Tea a leading brand in the United States and Britain.

So who is up for the challenge? We’ve staged the Olympics, finally won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon and seized yellow at the Tour de France twice…in two years.

The America’s Cup is now the last sporting summit to be conquered and it’s time to end 162 years of maritime misery, with my Sportsman of the Year Sir Ben at the helm and a nation providing the wind in his sails.

  •  James Toney is the managing editor at press agency Sportsbeat
  • Between now and the end of 2013, anyone wishing to join the SJA may apply, with their initial fee covering their membership through until the end of 2014 – effectively 14 months’ membership for the price of 12. Click here for more details


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