Why being punched by Ben Ainslie made me his biggest fan…

A childhood encounter gave one writer a different perspective on the greatest ever Olympic sailor

“Oi! Leper!”


As far as I recall these were the only words I ever said to Ben Ainslie, now the greatest Olympic sailor of all time and one of the great Olympians full stop. His response was, quite justifiably, to punch me as hard as he could.

Ainslie and I were at Truro School in Cornwall together at the end of the 1980s. Any sports fan’s interest would be raised by that connection to an Olympic contender – but ever since Atlanta 1996, I’ve been cheering Ben Ainslie on with extra fervour. It’s partly delight that someone who had such a difficult period in their childhood has well and truly shown their old school bullies who is best. It’s partly guilt that, briefly, I joined in the bullying.

Ainslie has an allergy to sunshine that, as a child, made his skin blotch and flake. Hence the horrid nickname. He struggled academically too I think, and wasn’t able to talk his way out of disapproval.

In my defence, I was 11 and was under duress from two bigger boys who thought it would be funny to force a speccy weed to insult Ainslie on their behalf. Having chosen what I thought was the least worst option, and received a massive dead arm – I can remember Ainslie’s rangy left reaching languidly across the aisle, and I can remember thinking it was fair enough – I made sure I didn’t sit at that desk again and tried not to think about it much afterwards. When Ainslie left the school I didn’t realise he’d been bullied out of it, or that he was already showing immense promise as a sailor and was using the name-calling as motivation.

I always think about that day now, though, when I see Ainslie winning another Olympic gold (he now has four in a row), or hear he’s won another world championship in the gruelling, heavyweight Finn class. Not just winning those events, but commanding them: going in as odds-on favourite, getting the job done, then discussing it afterwards with assurance and modesty. In his field, he is simply the greatest.

That Ainslie beat the bully boys – certainly, nobody who was in that Portakabin classroom in 1989 has amounted to anything vaguely comparable – isn’t often mentioned as a part of his story, perhaps because kids being bullied is sadly not so rare. Our school only gets about half a page in Ainslie’s autobiography, curt and dignified: I hope that’s because the experience no longer bothers him, although I fear it’s more that it’s something nobody would want to dwell on.

But if you want evidence of how, as American anti-bullying campaigners say, “it gets better” – that however hard it is to believe at the time, your schooldays won’t define you for long, if you don’t let them – Ainslie is a prime example. That’s why he’s one of my favourite sportsmen, even though I couldn’t generally give a toss about sailing because it’s hopeless as a spectator sport.


I hear there’s to be a golden post box on the shore of Restronguet Creek, where Ainslie learnt to sail. Next time I’m visiting my folks in Cornwall, I might make a little pilgrimage.