The Dialogue sits down with inspirational people from across the globe with links to the Middle East and North Africa. Guy Shone explores what drives these extraordinary individuals.
Winning an Olympic Gold medal is a tough business. Winning four in four consecutive Games, makes you a legend. Add in an America’s Cup win and you start to understand why Sir Ben Ainslie has mythical-like status within the sailing world - and beyond.
He could have retired having conquered the sailing world in 2012 after the London Games. It was, “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he tells The Dialogue, “to race on home waters in front of a home crowd.”
But he didn’t. Instead he invested more time to his charitable work and became the majority owner of the Great Britain SailGP team.
“It was a no brainer,” he says of the purchase. “We’re seeing that now with the valuations of the teams coming through, the growth of TV, the online viewership, the league itself.” Speaking at the competition’s first-ever event in Dubai, Sir Ben says he believes the next ten years will see “a lot of growth and a lot of success,” for a sport that’s still in its infancy.
Moving into being an owner has also allowed Sir Ben to grow in other ways. He once described himself as being fiercely competitive (just what’s needed to win over and over again), but in managing a team, there is, he says, “a very fine balance.”
“When we’re on the water…we’re really going for it. You have to at this level,” he says earnestly. “But then…we’re ashore managing the team, dealing with the business aspects.” While he admits business is competitive, he says it’s “much more about the relationships, partnerships; collaboration with other teams in the league or with our commercial partners.”
As captain of the British team in SailGP, he’s also learnt to deal with the pitfalls of when things aren’t going well and how he can steer his teammates through rough seas. “You’ve really got to try and keep the faith within the team and not panic…if you have good processes, you’ve got good people and you stick to that, then eventually you’ll come through whatever the challenges are.”
Sir Ben is also keen to dispel some myths about sailing, a sport often seen as being, in his words, “a very, very elitist sport.” He’s aiming to break down any barriers that may exist and make sailing more accessible through SailGP’s Inspire programme.
“Whenever we go around the world, we get local school kids…out on the water…to try and get them encouraged about the sport and realise that you don’t need to own a boat,” he explains. “The Royal Yachting Association [in the UK]…also does a great job in terms of providing the facilities and the kit for youngsters to get in the water….and have some fun.”
That’s exactly what a young Sir Ben did long before he found out that he had a talent for sailing. With a grin, he describes how it took him a long time to learn the ropes, despite coming from a family of keen sailors.
“When I was about eight-years-old my family moved to Cornwall and that was really when I guess the love affair with the sport began,” he says. “In the early days I used to go out and at the sailing club…[they’d] say ‘Ah, it’s that angsty kid, we better launch the extra lifeboat!’ I was a bit gung ho.”
Sir Ben admits there were a few occasions that that life boat was needed to pick him up and bring him back to shore. However, determination was key and “was probably the thing that shone through in the early days,” he says.
Through his charitable body, the 1851 Trust, Sir Ben is also trying to promote the message of protecting the environment and tackling climate change. “We started STEM Crew, which is a digital online educational resource for teachers and kids to tap into,” he explains.
The Trust focuses on climate change and sustainability. He says it’s about offering solutions for what people can do in their own lives and in their communities to “really start making a difference to help tackle the issues.”
While Sir Ben says his “number one goal” is for his team to win SailGP, he’s clear that getting the message out about protecting the planet and dealing with the challenge of climate change, are priorities. He hopes through his work that he can make a real difference