British Rowing at the Olympics

XXVIIth Olympics
September 2000
Christopher Dodd reports from Penrith Lakes
especially for the Rowing Service
Olympic Reports Redgrave reaches the stratosphere - September 23rd 2000

This was a day to savour. As I arrived at the lake it was its customary mirror self at 6.45 am, not a flutter in the flags and strong sun clearing the horizon in the east and ducking under a distant cloud layer. Three or four photographers with long lenses trained on the dawn, and a four glides towards the finish line. A few dozen people already in the stands burst into applause. Cracknell, Redgrave, Foster and Pinsent are into their early morning preparation. They turn, and paddle off up the lake again. All the right people are in the boat and God is in his heaven.

Much later in the day I discover that at 4 am Foster called Mark Edgar, the team physio, to work over his back. He didn't tell the others that he felt a twinge in the semi-final. He always does a good stretch these days before an outing. Whether they slept or not, I don't know. But five minutes into their final, the fourteenth and last race of their last season, they felt the pain. Six minutes that they will remember for the rest of their lives was almost over, and the Italians were coming at them for the second time.

It had taken eight strokes before their bow ball showed in front. At 500 they were 0.88 seconds ahead of the Australians, another crew experiencing the pull of the crowd. At 1000 metres they were 0.46 ahead of the Italians who were now lying second. At 1500 metres they were 0.99 seconds ahead of the Italians, and at the line the challengers had reduced that to 0.38 seconds. The Aussies were third. The Famous Four enjoyed the rest of the day hugely.

Life was thus exciting with James, Steve, Tim and Matt to the very end. They had to raise the game two times to achieve what they started in the spring of 1997, and left the possibility of another open until the last moment. Every reporter parachuted in and every photographer - and there were hundreds - who lugged his gear to Penrith Lake gasped with the drama of it all. "That makes the 100 metres look tame," said one. Half the British swimming team came up to watch, and Kate Hoey, the minister for sport, and the whole of the BBC team in Sydney. The Princess Royal, who is president of the British Olympic Association presented the medals, and Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, presented Steve with a gold Olympic pin in recognition of his five gold medals in rowing. No athlete in Britain, in rowing, in the Olympics or in an endurance sport has ever done that before. "The first is the best," he said, "but every one is special and every one is different."

For only the second time in their life, the crew stopped at the end of the race. Pinsent turned and climbed over Tim to embrace Steve before swallow diving into the lake. When he was back on board they paddled slowly across to the VIP side and came ashore to speak to the assembled tv cameras. Then, Tim and James spoke to the reporters as well, but soon they were off to the other side, to paddle past the endless grandstands and wave at the crowds. There was a special congratulation from one guy who had flown out to Australia for a stay of just 24 hours to see the race: Steve's mate Mark Hall swam out to the boat and embraced them all. The four spent a long time there before crossing the course once more and coming into the medal pontoon, after which it was the families' turn.

Sheila Redgrave has seen every medal won by her son in the finish line. "No words [describe it]," she said. "He's just done it and that was it... I would say retire at the top. He's taken a lot of punishment over the years. Steven will only go for the Olympic medal and to take on another four years is an awful commitment at his age. I think he's quite looking forward to retirement."

Geoff Redgrave has seen his son's medals too. "It's a marvellous finish to 20 odd years. He gets it from his mother, she's very determined. The staying power is from me. If I start something I always see it through."

Steve said: "My wife Ann made it clear that if I carry on in the boat I won't have a marriage. A choice has got to be made."

Olivia Rossiter of sponsors Lombard said "I don't know if the sponsorship will go on, but it's the best investment the company ever made."

When I last saw them, the quartet were having a good day. Did Steve ever think that this day might not come, one reporter wanted to know. "I always knew that the 23rd of September would happen," said the 38-year-old with a new medal round his neck. "It happened all right. Tim and James had their first Olympic gold, don't forget, and even more, don't forget that this was Matt's day too, with his third."

Tim's back held out. His mum Heather said: "Whenever he wins a medal he always puts it round my neck. It's just one of the little things he does. And this time he put his Olympic medal around my neck, but I couldn't keep it. This is his medal and he ought to wear it. He should enjoy the glory of it for as long as he can because it's truly wonderful. And I think the people back home have really wanted this, they really have. Gold Fever did such a lot of good, it really did. People got enthralled with and couldn't wait for the next episode. A lot of hard work and a lot of heartache goes into it."

"Most of the racing we do doesn't have passion. I thought today did have passion", said Steve at one point. Absolutely right. This was a day worth crossing the world for.

The only sad thing about it for the British was the suffocation of Ed Coode and Greg Searle, charged down, 'anchored in concrete" as one commentator put it, by the charge of the French brigade, with Yanks and Aussies winning the scramble for the other medals. I cannot bear to think about it, as I'm sure they can't either.

© Copyright Christopher Dodd 2000. All rights reserved