Evening Standard

Golden guy: Steve Redgrave. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Sir Steve Redgrave may be the bookies favourite to light the 2012 Olympic flame but his advice is to not to put any money on him.

Given that he has kept the opening night free from TV work the assumption is that on July 27 Britain’s only Olympian to win five golds will enter the Olympic Stadium with the flame?

“Of course, I’d like the honour but, if you look through the history of the Games, they always try to have somebody who’s a little bit more unexpected,” he says. “So being favourite is not the best place to be. I think LOCOG [the 2012 organising committee] will do something a little bit different.”

Redgrave thinks London could use more than one person, copying Vancouver from last year’s Winter Games. However, given what happened to one of the four-strong lighting party – speed skater Le May Doan – Redgrave would be best well out of it.

“Three of the four flame silos came out of the ground but one didn’t materialise,” says the former rower, who carried the flag in Barcelona and Atlanta. “So you’ve got this guy standing there and I was thinking, ‘Well, what’s he doing?’ But he carried off not doing anything quite well.”

What Redgrave would love is to be a competitor again. Yes, the man who minutes after winning his fourth gold famously quipped that anyone who saw him near a boat again could shoot him, is pained by the fact he cannot be back on the water at London 2012.

“I’ve spent most of my life competing at the Olympic Games but I’d trade in every medal I’ve got just to be part of the British team, not even win. To enter the stadium last as part of the home team, when most of the audience are from the host nation, that is when the broadcasters get excited and, from that moment onwards, it’s all about you and your country. Nothing is quite the same as competing at your home Games.”

There is no mistaking the regret in his voice and this could be the retired athlete raging against the dying of the light. But is there more to it?

Waving the flag: after win No5 at Sydney 2000. Image courtesy of Evening Standard.

Redgrave was intimately involved in London’s 2012 bid, right from the very start. After the Sydney Games he was approached by Britain’s International Olympic Committee member Craig Reedie, Simon Clegg, the then chief executive of the British Olympic Association, and David Luckes, a hockey player, who is now head of sport competition for London 2012

He recalls: “They asked my opinion about bidding. I said, ‘That would be fantastic.’ My job was to bring the Mayor on board which I thought would be difficult because Ken [Livingstone] was known not really to be a sports lover. But I was amazed with the guy. He saw it straight away. At our first meeting he said, ‘Of course we’ll get involved. For me it’s an absolute no brainer’.”

Last week Redgrave and Livingstone met accidentally on the Tube. “He sat next to me and we spent the entire conversation reminiscing about the whole of the bid process when I was heavily involved along with him.”

The picture Redgrave paints is of a time past, two men aware they are no longer at the centre of 2012. Livingstone does not have a ticket for the opening ceremony and, while Redgrave is a 2012 ambassador he is not involved with LOCOG.

Redgrave explains the change in a matter-of-fact way. “After London won the bid, under IOC rules, a new company had to be set up to run the Games. The bid board had 30 members, there were a lot of athletes. The new board had 12 people. Jonathan Edwards got the one athlete’s position and he’s done a fantastic job.”

However, there has been much talk in Olympic circles that Redgrave does not get on with LOCOG chairman Lord Coe. Neither Redgrave nor Coe talk about it but a few days after I met Redgrave, Daley Thompson, told me: “Redgrave was one of his most vocal critics when Coe took over as bid chairman. Redgrave said he should never have been allowed [to be bid leader]. Clearly he was wrong and Redgrave has since retracted publicly. Coe is the only bloke that could have got us the Games.”

Then Thompson, the double Olympic decathlon champion, says: “Coe is the greatest British Olympian, greater than Redgrave.”

In his book Redgrave talks of the battles between Coe and Steve Ovett for middle distance supremacy in the 80s: “Ovett and I were kindred spirits . . . Coe was a more aloof figure.” Redgrave saw in Ovett a fellow rebel. “He often used to compete in a red vest as I did at the Marlow Rowing Club.” As he pats his dog, Redgrave prefers to talk about how his rebellious nature changed his life and this country’s rowing.

“I was in the single scull in 1983 and was eliminated in the World Championships,” he says. “That was the turning point in my career. At that time people were telling me, ‘One day you could be a world champion’. I believed them. It was great, especially coming from my working-class background. You think, ‘My name’s engraved on the trophy, I wonder which year it’ll be?’ Then I got the kick in the teeth by being eliminated and I started asking questions of myself. ‘I’m very good when I’m racing in this country but, when I go abroad, it’s not happening. Why is that?'”

Redgrave’s answer was to question British training. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s people were holding down full-time jobs. They couldn’t train every hour so they felt they had to train very intensively. My father, who ran a small building business, was my Lottery funding. We used to go out on the water for 45 minutes to an hour, hit it really hard, produce lactic acid which makes the body stiff and slow, taking longer to recover from training. I heard rumours that the East Germans and the Russians were doing long training sessions over long periods of time but they reduced the intensity. I rebelled against the Amateur Rowing Association and said, ‘I’m going to do it my way’.

“That meant doing more volume work but still holding on to a little bit of our tradition by putting the intensity in. I was training harder for long periods, doing two to three sessions on the water and building a pyramid of training: one week 100 miles, the next 150 miles, the next 200 miles.”

Although he faced opposition from the rowing bosses, Redgrave stuck to his guns and reaped the benefits.

“They were against me big time,” he recalls. “Penny Tutor, the chief selector and chief coach, said, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you, you won’t go to the Olympics.’ I walked out of the meeting saying, ‘I won’t go to the Olympics, I’ll focus on a different element of the sport’. It was a gamble but I didn’t just close the gap, I leapfrogged it. In those 10 months I went from being eliminated at the World Championships to being Olympic champion.”

Setting a trend: Redgrave (far right) on the victory rostrum following his Olympic success in Los Angeles in 1984. Image courtesy og Evening Standard.

The first of his five golds, at Los Angeles in 1984 in the coxed four, had come four years earlier than planned but Redgrave was not entirely happy. “I always wanted to be a single sculler. My aim was to try and compete at three Olympics – Moscow, Los Angeles and Seoul. Moscow was going to be the Olympic experience; Los Angeles I would make the final, maybe get a medal, Seoul was where I planned to win gold, in a single scull.”

Redgrave never won a single scull Olympic gold – although he did at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. And, for all his honours, he cannot forgive Mrs Thatcher’s support of the American boycott of Moscow.

“I have a chip on my shoulder for not being allowed to go to the Moscow Games as an 18-year-old. Rowing decided to go but we weren’t able to send the normal-sized team. The crew that I was in gained selection but didn’t go. The boycott was imposed because putting your national forces into Afghanistan was seen to be a bad thing. At the moment it seems to be a good thing. The only difference is that it’s our country in there, then it was the Russian Army.”

However, rowing with a four made Redgrave realise the chemistry of team sport. “Of the Sydney coxless four, Tim [Foster], technically very sound, was physically the weakest. I thought, if we’re ever going to replace anybody, Tim is the one that you would look to strengthen. Then, when he had his wrist problem and was out of the boat for a while, we rowed with someone who was bigger and stronger. In training we went a little bit quicker, in racing we went a lot slower. I learned that Tim was able to bring out the best from all of us and make the unit go faster, he added to the unit in a different way.”

Not that rowing experience always translates into life. When they rowed, Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent were perfect team-mates which he puts down to them being similar characters.

Yet now Redgrave cannot imagine doing what Pinsent does.

“Matthew’s a television presenter but I couldn’t think of anything worse. I hate to be in front of the camera, I don’t like being in the limelight. I’d love to have David Beckham’s money but I’ve never been interested in fame. My motivation to row was to win races and be the best I possibly could.”


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