British Rowing at the Olympics

XXVIIth Olympics
September 2000
Christopher Dodd reports from Penrith Lakes
especially for the Rowing Service
Olympic Reports Twenty years in the stands - I saw it all - September 22nd

In 1984 I saw the GB coxed four emerge from the mist on Lake Casitas to go through the Americans and win Britain's first Olympic gold since Laurie and Wilson in the pair and Burnell and Bushnell in the double in 1948. Richard Burnell was in the press stand too, praying that his long reign as the last Olympic champion would be over. Mike Spracklen was the coach behind it, and the road to Casitas had been rocky, with four blokes who would only row with winners. That was stroke man Steve Redgrave's first gold, accompanied by Martin Cross, Richard Budgett, Andy Holmes and cox Adrian Ellison.

In 1996 I saw an ordinary bloke from Marlow who'd won a few medals get his fourth Olympic gold with Matt Pinsent and tell the cameras that anyone who sees him in a boat again "has full permission to shoot me" - an utterance that has come to haunt him.

The saga began at Hazewinkel in 1980 where I went to watch an ordinary lad from Marlow who had won a few pots with Great Marlow School win a silver medal in the double sculls with an ordinary bloke from Rochdale who'd first made a mark at Hollingworth Lake ("The Malibu of the South Pennines").

This medal was a cruel first lesson for a boy who had already told his girlfriend that he wanted to be an Olympic champion. Steve and Adam Clift almost came to blows afterwards. Their coach, Mike Spracklen, had forgotten to ram home that the distance was 1500 metres. His crew had been training for 2000 metres to try and make the quad for the Moscow Olympics. When they were winding up for their fast finish, the finish line caught them and gave East Germany (including one Thomas Lange) the gold medal.

Between Los Angeles '84 and Atlanta '96 came Seoul '88 and Barcelona '92. On the Han River course in Seoul, reputedly created by moving three villages and altering the course of the river, came the second with Holmes, and the duo's attempt on the coxed event with Pat Sweeney in the cox's seat trying in vain to will some power back into the tired legs of the oarsmen. Both finals were on the same day, and they did not have enough recovery time, finishing with the bronze.

In Banyoles on the extinct volcano lake in the hills of Catalonia came the third gold with his new partner Matt Pinsent and his first with coach Jurgen Grobler. Thus began this pair's attempt to repeat it in Atlanta without defeat in between. Via world titles in Roudnice, Indianapolis and Tampere, they completed the challenge they had set themselves on Lake Lanier. Atlanta was the only time I have seen Steve's head go down at the end of a race, captured by the hand-shake photograph by Peter Spurrier which accompanies the boat that did the business now in the River and Rowing Museum at Henley.

That famous shooting phrase came to haunt Redgrave as soon as he and Pinsent turned up at Leander early in 1997 and announced that they were seeking two candidates to make a four to win gold in Sydney. Today we are one day away from the completion of that aspiration. Following the four has been a fantastic voyage of medals, pain, injury, ups and downs. Three world titles later, the famous five - Redgrave, Pinsent, James Cracknell, Tim Foster, Jurgen Grobler, also starring Ed Coode - arrived in Sydney with a lot of the pressure off as fourth seeds after their defeat in Lucerne. Their heat told the world that they have heeded Lucerne's warning. Their semi-final, dare one say it, makes them favourites again.

The most impressive thing about this quartet is that Steve and Matt put history behind them from day 1. They never ever refer to what's gone before, except in the context of the four. Neither do Tim or James. Through all the difficulties - Tim's hand injury, Steve's diabetes, Tim's back injury, Steve's poor winters, James's neuroses as he rows in the boat with his rowing hero, Matt's facing the demons after defeat in Lucerne - none of them ever talk history. They have talked four, gold in Sydney, gold in Sydney, gold in Sydney. Everything they have done in the gym, in the boat, in their heads has focused on this.

The statistics won't go away, however. If the 38-year-old bloke from Marlow, and now from Leander, wins on Saturday it will be his fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal. Here is the honours board: Paul Elvstrom (Denmark), 4 for yachting, Aledar Geoverich (Hungary) 6 for fencing; Paul Kovaks (Hungary) 5 for fencing; Carl Lewis (US) 4 for athletics; Al Oerter (US) 4 for discus.

Steve's story has been one of commitment since the day that Francis Smith, his English master at Great Marlow, enticed him down to Marlow RC as a teenager. The mantelpiece was soon groaning with trophies, and his mum and dad, Sheila and Geoff, got behind with encouragement, easing his passage to part-time employment to support himself while he rowed. If you look at Redgrave's career between Olympic Games, he has always been particular about who he rows with and by whom he is coached. He has won nine world titles, three world cups, three Commonwealth titles, and a staggering 19 Henley medals. I have been privileged to see every one from the press box, and his mum has been on the finish line for every one too, the cheerleader among the roar of the crowd.

Redgrave's first ambition to become the world's best single sculler was not a success, but he achieved the 1986 Commonwealth title in the single boat among a top-class entry. The Los Angeles coxed four was the springboard that unleashed Redgrave the oarsman, founding a partnership with Andy Holmes which was far from love at first sight but a contractual marriage that brought success to each.

Pinsent, junior champion with Foster, entered the picture after the promising combination of Redgrave and Simon Berrisford collapsed when a back injury forced retirement on Berrisford before the world championships in 1989. By now Spracklen was coaching in Canada and the new pair went to seek him out, snatching a medal in Tasmania in November 1990 and turning it to gold in Vienna in 1991 - by which time, Leander had hired Grobler, former chief coach of the East German women.

The rest has been a courageous, heroic passage to medal after medal through diabetes, colitis and hours and days and months of bloody hard work, accompanied by Redgrave's now impressive conduct on the bank, where he inspires wherever he goes. The days of the awkward, monosyllabic youth are long gone, and the family support team is now extended to his wife Ann, the team doc, and his three kids.

On Thursday Redgrave told his press conference: "With the likelihood that this could be my last Olympics, I decided I'd like to enjoy the experience." He deserves it, and he deserves to win. Not for the history books, but because he and his four are truly awesome. His fan club extends far beyond Britain and penetrates deeply into Australia. He is the Olympian par excellence.

Once more, Sheila's on the finish line, with her husband and grandchildren. Once more, lucky old me is in the press stand. Pray for a g'day on Penrith lake.

© Copyright Chris Dodd 2000. All rights reserved

For reports on today's racing, visit Rachel Quarrell's from-TV commentary. Chris Dodd will be posting an exclusive race report here on all Saturday's A-finals, a few hours after the end of racing and Redgrave's Sydney final.