Sir Steven Redgrave, fit and newly 50, is primed for the next stage of his Olympic destiny. After months of dieting, he’s ready to light the flame for London 2012. Or so the bookmakers say. At the time of writing, no decision had been taken by the organisers and none will be made until a few days before the opening ceremony. One feels that to overlook Britain’s greatest-ever Olympian for this honour would be a national travesty. But the ever-modest Redgrave betrays no hint of the depth of his feelings as he prepares coffee for two in his hilltop home above Marlow Bottom in Buckinghamshire. He does admit however to being cautiously optimistic that he might be chosen.
Casper, his Dulux dog, bustles around between us. On a previous visit, his wagging tail flipped my cup onto the Redgraves’ immaculate carpet, bringing Britain’s multi-medalled former world champion rower to his knees in a rush to prevent permanent staining. As my mug teeters again on the edge of a Perspex coffee table, he moves swiftly with a nimbleness that belies his 6ft 5in frame to avoid a repeat. Domestic disaster averted, he turns his attention to the Games, his life’s focus since he was told he could be a world beater when he was 15. His supreme moment, ‘the greatest sporting instant of my life’, came 23 years later when, uniquely, he won his fifth gold medal in consecutive Olympics – this one in the Coxless Four in the 2000 Sydney Games. Diabetes, recently diagnosed and treated, added further strain to the competitive agony. Would a drop in blood sugar level send him into a coma during the unparalleled effort required for an Olympic final? The medical team that included his wife, Ann, couldn’t know for sure.
With hindsight Steve understands that he wouldn’t have been allowed to compete if there’d been serious danger, but in the cauldron of the Games, he was uncertain enough to tape an emergency packet of sugar to the floor of the boat.
‘I’m not driven to shorten my life. That’s one reason why I’d never endorse drugs in sport. Some of those who’ve taken them have died far too young, which I find obscene.’
He took up rowing when his English master recruited the boys with the biggest hands and feet to form a Coxed Four to represent Great Marlow comprehensive school. As a dyslexic who found English lessons challenging, he seized the chance and the school’s boat swept all aside in schoolboy competitions in the south of England.
Initially he thought his international career would be in single sculls – why share the glory when you can keep it for yourself? – but results convinced him otherwise. In 1984, at 22, he won gold in the Coxed Four at the Los Angeles Olympics and the rest is history. For the next 16 years, he trained five hours a day, seven days a week, 49 weeks a year, much of it spent wooing the River Thames – ‘my first love, my demanding mistress’. After each gold medal, he rewarded himself with a skiing holiday, a sport he’d fallen for on a school trip, but rarely enjoyed because of its potential for career-threatening injuries.
Nowadays the Olympics are largely about legacy – what will the Games bring to the nation, the city, the neighbourhood? What will happen to the stadiums? Will the proceeds be spent on youth programmes, funding future champions? For Steve Redgrave, the legacy is a knighthood and an Olympic mandarin’s role.
Sporting triumph has transformed him from a shy, inarticulate teenager into a man of the world who can drum up a speech at the nod of a sponsor. I’ve seen him do it as captain of a celebrity golf team in Bermuda, as the front man on a ski race week in the Italian Alps, as a charity participant in free-fall parachuting with the Red Devils. If you need a few spontaneous words spoken with dry wit and self-deprecating charm, Steve’s your man. No wonder he’s the darling of the after-dinner speaking circuit.
In restaurants, he’s accosted by fans asking for mobile-phone photos and autographs. ‘The Brits are conservative but I see them looking at me speculatively, then one picks up the courage to approach me and it’s open season. I always think they’re talking about someone else, but they’re 99% respectful. For me, food is refuelling, never the highlight of my day, so I have the option to eat up and get out.’
Of course he wishes he could compete on the Olympic rowing lake at Dorney this month. ‘The Olympics in my own country and I’ll be on the sidelines – sure it’ll hurt. However much I tell myself it’s someone else’s turn, I’ll have trouble believing it when the boats line up.’ It’ll be up close and personal too because he’ll be commentating for the BBC on the first eight mornings.
In other arenas, track cycling is his favourite, but he has trouble with subjective disciplines such as gymnastics, diving and dressage.
‘I wasn’t the prettiest of rowers, so I’d have been hard pressed to win that way.’ Then again, there should be something for everyone and the sight of the likes of Roger Federer, and Rafa Nadal pursuing Olympic glory has a certain appeal. ‘We mere mortals look up at those immortals in the Olympic village, but they’re happy to turn up for nothing to win a gold medal. That’s quite cool.’
He may be the only male in Britain to doubt the validity of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport – though he admits to watching it in its heyday when bikinis were mandatory for female players. Now T-shirts have been imposed, he can turn his attention to his role as one of Team GB’s ambassadors. As the lone guinea pig for this experiment at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, his most important assignment was to show the Princess Royal round the village and introduce her to potential sponsors.
‘She presented two of my medals and she’s an International Olympic Committee member, so I know her pretty well, but I managed to lose her twice in one day,’ he admits. ‘After the tour ended in the canteen, we were to travel in convoy to the women’s curling but she gave me the slip when I was waylaid by fans. The same thing happened on the return journey. I’m sure she did it on purpose. The next day, I grabbed her coat to keep her in check. Luckily I didn’t get shot and she found it quite amusing.’
Steve Redgrave on London 2012
Redgrave’s views about London 2012 are unsurprisingly positive (he took part in the bid to secure the Games for London). ‘It annoys me when people talk about “on time” and “on budget”. For 18 months, business cards were forced on me as if I were personally able to give out contracts. The first two years were spent preparing the land for the Olympic Park, putting in infrastructure that will also support a hospital. Meanwhile, the cost of steel more than doubled. You’d need a crystal ball to factor that in.
‘I won’t go so far as to say the Games are value for money,’ he continues, ‘but I do feel the money has been well spent. They’ve created jobs in a tough recession and they’re a unique chance to show off our culture. I hope spectators will take time to visit other parts of Britain.’
He identifies one clanger, however, which is likely to strike a chord with many. ‘The logo is a bit of the plot the organisers lost. They should have run a competition for design students at universities instead of paying huge fees for what looks like a load of boxes thrown in a heap.’
In non-Olympic moments, Steve leads a highly charged family life with his wife, Ann, and his children, Natalie, Sophie and Zak. Ann supplanted the Thames – his first love – in 1988, but the marriage had a minimal impact on her husband’s routine or ambition. It helped that she was a fellow Olympian – she rowed in the women’s eight in LA – and a career woman, training as an osteopath and setting up the Redgrave Clinic (now closed) in 1990.
Nowadays she is the Medical Officer to Team GB’s rowing operation, looking after 400 senior and junior competitors. Juggling is a way of life – an afternoon snatched to watch Zak play basketball at Wellington College, a hair appointment cancelled to help Natalie with a dislocated shoulder. ‘When the children leave home, we’ll have to start talking,’ he says.
His capacity for dramatic U-turns (remember his comment after the 1996 Atlanta gold that ‘anyone who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me’) is arguably matched by that of his daughter Natalie. As a tall, reticent teenager, she swore she’d never follow in her parents’ footsteps. Now 21, she’s a medical student at Oxford, president of the Pembroke College Rowing Club and captain of the Ladies Rowing Club. In 2011, she competed in – and won – the Women’s Varsity Boat Race.
‘Of course I was proud,’ says Steve. ‘I didn’t want her not to do it because of me. Far better she should try it and make up her own mind. Sophie is more into arts and drama, while Zak loves basketball and rugby. He’ll be even taller than me, but skinnier. I’d love them to do the Olympics, but a gold medal has to be their dream, not mine. I’ve always wanted them to be independent.'
Redgraves have lived in Marlow Bottom since the Thirties – his parents Sheila and Geoff still do. After an early job with the gas board Redgrave senior became a builder, an occupation his non-academic only son was expected to pursue – which he did, after a fashion. When Steve retired from full-time rowing after Sydney, he and Ann planned and built their family home, with indoor swimming pool, tennis court, chicken coop and barbecue area. A gleaming red Jaguar XJ, a sponsor’s lend delivered the day before, stands on the well-groomed gravel. The Redgraves cautiously claim Viking ancestry which, if true, would explain Steve’s passion for water sports, now transferred to kayaking, a favourite fitness routine. After a flirtation with cycling that ended in an accident and 18-months’ convalescence, he put on 30 kilos. He tackled the problem with typical grit by following a version of the Cambridge diet (packet soups and shakes twice a day, and one proper meal). ‘If I’m paid to go to a dinner, I can’t ask for a bowl of hot water,’ he says. That took care of 20 kilos. More dieting led him to his rowing station on the Royal Barge Gloriana for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant at 104 kilos, his ideal racing weight.
Inevitably the Redgrave addiction to competition has found new outlets, though nowadays in contests he can’t hope to win. He has become an experienced skier, a regular in resorts on both sides of the Atlantic with Matthew Pinsent, his celebrated medal mate and fellow knight. But he’ll never stand on the podium for the winners of the annual ‘Inferno’, a devilishly tough 14km all-comers downhill race held in Mürren, Switzerland, in the shadow of the Eiger.
That privilege goes to locals whose DNA contains every twist and turn of the descent, but Steve can improve, as he did in January, ploughing through fog and rain to finish 945th in a field of 1,850 racers (200 places up on his position last year). From those lofty heights he can appreciate the unfamiliar sensation of being an also-ran, a middle ranker, a very good skier who will never become great.
But to echo that famous exhortation by Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts. Somehow you feel that Sir Steve will never quite fully subscribe to that notion.
Where and when Steve Redgrave got his five gold medals
Los Angeles 1984: aged 22, the future Olympic great row to Coxed Four glory in his games debut.
Seoul, 1988: Steve teams up with Andy Holmes (who died in 2010) to land his first Coxless Pair gold.
Barcelona, 1992: A sweet repeat for Steve with new rowing partner Matthew Pinsent.
Atlanta, 1996: It's an amazing Coxless Pair hat trick for Steve as he and Matthew Pinsent share the glory again.
Sydney, 2000: His final bow - the BBC Sports Personality of the Year's last gold, this time in the Coxless Four.
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