In recent years, Britain seems to have experienced a resurgence of enthusiasm for sport in general and for the Olympic Games in particular. We have seen the emergence of a cadre of sporting heroes who seemingly dominate our media. They populate our TV panel shows, their books pepper the bestseller charts, their commercials sell us our breakfast cereals and vegetarian meat-substitutes, they influence our choices of bank and fast food outlet. Our love for all things Olympian has grown to the point where we even begin to embrace the eccentric and flamboyant star athletes from the nations against whom we compete.
Of course, our enthusiasm is helped by a stellar line-up of successful athletes who just keep on validating our faith in them by bringing home gold medal after gold medal. Following Team GB’s excellent haul at London 2012, all eyes were on the tally in Rio 2016. Exceeding expectations, the British team increased the overall total number of medals it won, becoming the first nation to win more medals at the Olympics immediately following the Games it had itself hosted.
The current generation of international athletes is quick to acknowledge the inspiration they have taken from those who served before them. Rower Helen Glover, swimmer Siobhan-Marie O’Connor and kayaker Joe Clarke are just a few of the many British Olympic champions who have credited Sir Steve Redgrave with inspiring them to achieve success.
As far as the UK is concerned, Sir Steve is pretty much the face of the Olympic Games. He competed over decades, winning gold medals in five consecutive Games – the only British Olympian to do so.
Regtransfers visited Sir Steve at his beautiful Buckinghamshire home to deliver the number plates for his new personal car registration ROW 601D (“ROW GOLD”) in May 2016. This wasn’t Steve’s first private number plate: his wife, Dr Ann Redgrave, had previously bought him G5 SSR.
As a young man beginning his sporting career, Steve Redgrave worked for his father’s construction business, labouring on building sites. His father ironically nicknamed him The Foreman, due to his tendency to stand around rather than work. Steve has attributed those periods of daydreaming to his preoccupation with sport.
Redgrave’s career as a rower began when he was a pupil at his local comprehensive, Great Marlow School.
“The head of the English department had two loves: one was rowing and the other was rugby. We were a football school so those sports never really got an opportunity. He started a small boat club up and asked a few individuals if they would like to try the sport. I thought that going out on the river during school time seemed a lot of fun. At that age I would have done anything to get out of school and messing about on the river seemed like a great idea.
“After two or three weeks of doing it on a Wednesday afternoon and doing it during school sports I sort of got hooked on it. He asked 12 people from our year group and four of us kept it going, staying as a four, with just one change for the next two and a half years.
“In that first year of 1976 we were a junior 14 four. We entered seven events and won all seven so, of course, we thought we were God’s gift to rowing. The reality is that your bigger schools, your well known rowing schools such as Eton, Radley, Shrewsbury, their first boat will be an eight. We didn’t have enough people to put an eight together so we rowed in fours. So, with the top schools rowing in eights that takes up their top four and their second four. Sometimes they’ll have a second eight as well, so that takes the third and fourth fours out of the equation. That all meant that we would be racing their fifth best four in our year group. That was good for us because it meant that we won a lot of races. It gave you that expectation of winning races. Success breeds success and when you get used to winning you expect to win and you go in with the positive attitude that you are going to win.
“A few years, later when we were going for junior selection, we were racing the top athletes in our year group, but we were still going into those trials thinking that, as we won more races than we lost, we were going to win those trials. Of course, we didn’t always win but we were certainly at the top end of the group.
“I think that kind of mentality helps. People like doing things they’re good at and want to avoid things that they’re bad at. So if you stumble across something and find yourself doing quite well at it, you will then put more time, more vigour, more enthusiasm into it, which means that you’ll probably get better at it as well. I would never have classed myself as being the best oarsman in the world but if you find something too easy then there isn’t enough of a challenge there to motivate you to do it. I found myself reasonably talented but limited enough that I would need to invest time and dedication to be able to take it to the highest level. Those early years of racing and winning more than we lost put me in a good frame of mind to be able to dream about competing at the Olympics, and when you start dreaming about the Olympics then you start trying to make that become a reality and all your day-to-day training and preparation is geared up for doing that.”
In 1992, as widely reported, Steve was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
“My diagnosis came 10 weeks before the Barcelona games. That was quite a traumatic time and my performance was tailing off very quickly. I found it difficult to hold consistent performance of any sort. Matthew Pinsent and I raced at the second International Regatta at Essen in Germany. We made the final on the first day of racing – I think we came fourth. The second day we didn’t even make the final. As we were coming off the water, following our worst performance in the two years we’d been rowing together, the chairman of the selectors came up to us and said, ‘You’re selected to go to the Olympic Games. You don’t have to race again this season until the Olympics. Go away and get yourselves sorted out. Try to get your performance back’.
“We were world champions and world record holders at the time, so we’d proven the year before that we were at the necessary level but obviously I wasn’t very well. We found out what was wrong with me, put me on the right medication and I bounced back relatively quickly. I was a very sick individual leading into the games and a month afterwards I came down with the condition again. Fortunately, for about a two-month period with the Olympics in the middle of it, I was reasonably healthy.
“It’s an ongoing condition. I have to take medication on a day-to-day basis to keep it in remission but, touch wood, I haven’t had any bouts of that for about eight years now. Then I was diagnosed as diabetic three years before Sydney. In fact, that seemed to be harder to deal with than the colitis. Because the colitis was so close to the games, I didn’t really have too much time to contemplate it and it was a case of finding what we needed to do to get the show back on the road. Fortunately we got there in the end.”
Famously, Steve announced his intention to retire after his fourth consecutive gold medal at the Atlanta Games but that wasn’t quite what happened.
“Ah, yes. I said If anyone saw me near a boat again they’d got my permission to shoot me.”
That seems like a pretty firm declaration of intent, so what changed Steve’s mind?
“I love Australia as a country. I’ve been out there a number of times and we’ve got relatives out there. I love their outdoor sporting culture. In Australia all the mornings seemed to be like this with no wind, warm sun. I don’t go out on the river very often but on a morning like this you’d think about it. It sort of inspired me to be a part of the Sydney Games.
“The Atlanta Games obviously was successful for me but overall as the British team, well, we didn’t do as well. In fact, we only won one gold medal at those Games. The organisation was quite mixed. Some areas were incredible: the stadiums they put together were outstanding. At the rowing venue at Gainesville they put an 18,000 seat stadium into the water – on pylons – right next to the rowing course. Incredible views. Somewhere, I don’t know quite where, I have a photograph of our tiny little boat in front of this massive, great stadium. In rowing we don’t usually get that – we’re quite isolated. To have a course that is just over a mile long, 2,000 metres, and eight lanes wide, you don’t have them in city centres. They tend to be more out of major cities, so being in that situation and having this incredible stadium was pretty special. But the transport system was awful. The bus drivers were getting themselves lost and some people were missing their events because of the traffic. No, they weren’t brilliant at every aspect of it.
“I thought Sydney would be pretty special and I felt that I didn’t want to retire at 34. I thought I could go on for another four years to 38 and compete in Sydney.”
Indeed he could. The Sydney 2000 Games brought Steve’s fifth and final Olympic gold medal and a place in sporting history.
We asked Sir Steve how he thought the 2016 British team would fare.
“I think really well. History shows that the country that has hosted the last games normally does quite well at the games afterwards and then it falls off the edge. So, I’m expecting a great performance from Team GB in rowing and cycling. I think they’re going to struggle to get the same amount of medals and gold medals that they had in London.
“In rowing we had our best games ever. We won four golds and nine medals in total. That beat our previous best which was 1908, so it’s taken quite a long time to get back up there. I think in Rio we’ll probably win two, possibly three golds and six or seven medals in total, so still much better than any of the British rowing teams that I was on. That would be a great performance if we can do that.
“I think overall I would say Britain’s medal count could be somewhere similar to London and I think gold medals will be slightly down, but hopefully still in the twenties. We got 19 in Beijing; I’m hoping we are going to still beat that 19, but 29 I think is going to be extremely difficult.”
As it turned out, Steve’s detailed predictions were right on the money. As he expected, Team GB did exceptionally well. As he expected, our cyclists and rowers delivered great performances but struggled to equal their 2012 medal totals. He was right that the rowing team would win three gold medals and he was right that our overall medal tally would be similar to that of 2012 (it went up by two), while the number of gold medals would be slightly lower (it went down by two).
Steve’s wife, Ann (Lady Redgrave), is a rowing Olympian in her own right and competed at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She is also a doctor and was Chief Medical Officer to GB Rowing between 1992 and 2001. She continues to have involvement with the sport in a medical capacity.
The couple have three children. If there is a genetic component that inclines one to take up sports, it appears to be inconsistent in its manifestation.
“Two of my children are quite sporty and one is not at all. My eldest, Natalie, is now a doctor. She’s more of a netball player than anything else but being a junior doctor it is difficult to commit yourself to a team because you’re working shifts. She’s working nights at the moment and so finds it very difficult keeping her sports going. She did row for a little while. She was actually at Oxford University doing medicine and she did the women’s boat race in one of the years she was there.
“My next daughter down is just finishing university, literally, she handed her dissertation in this week. She’s in event management so she’s looking for a job… I’m hoping she’s looking for a job! She has never really been into competitive sport. She goes to the gym and works out a bit but never really got into the competitive side of it.
“My son [Zak] is eighteen and he’s actually got an exam today at the start of his A-Levels. So, I’ve got one left to put through university. He’s more of a rugby player: a second row forward, six foot six with size 14 shoes. He’s also a very good basketball player but at university I think he’ll probably end up playing rugby even though he’s talking about possibly rowing or doing basketball. We’ll see what happens at the end of the summer holidays, but I can see him playing more rugby than rowing. Rowing you have to be a little more consistent and methodical about your training, which makes it difficult to party hard as well as do the volume of training that you need to do to be successful at it, and he likes partying so the rugby suits him very well.”
Steve may have retired from competitive sports himself but he has found plenty of related channels into which he has poured his time and energy.
“Within weeks of retiring after Sydney I got involved with the bid process for London 2012. I was the fourth person on the team that put together the application to go into the IOC. We had the chief executive and the chairman of the British association and a guy called David Luckes, a former hockey player, who was out in Sydney assessing to see if we could actually put a bid together. I was brought on board to convince the mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the government at that time to back the bid. Once we got all the parties on board I became part of the board and the presenting team out in Singapore when we won the bid in 2005. I played a slightly lesser role once we’d won the bid, but it was pretty special to be part of that.
“I’m chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, which has 177 years of history and very iconic within our sport. It’s a volunteer role, an honorary role, but it takes up most of my time so when we’ve finished here I’m going over to the office in Henley. Our event is in six weeks time so it’s pretty full on at the moment. Entries close in three weeks time so we’re getting all the infrastructure together. It’s estimated that 300,000 people come through Henley in that week.”
Hang on. There’s more.
“I’m also a trustee of Comic Relief, and Sport Relief was set up in this very room. I’d been involved with Red Nose Day and we did quite a lot of sporting activities and sporting challenges, so Kevin Cahill, the chief executive who’s just retiring, came to me and said he’d got this idea. One of the problems they had with Comic Relief and Red Nose Day at that time was that, because it happens every other year, they had this amazing staff who would come up with some really fantastic fundraising ideas for Red Nose Day, but then they had 18 months where you start the preparations for the next one. Those people aren’t going to sit and twiddle their thumbs, they want to be challenged in different areas, so they were losing quite a lot of talented support staff. So, Kevin came to me and asked me what I thought of the idea that turned into Sport Relief, although it wasn’t called that at the time. It was partly a way of keeping talented staff employed constantly by going back and forth between Red Nose, Sport relief, Red Nose, Sport relief… 2002 was the first Sport relief and the gimmick that was being sold – because it was done in the summer in those days although it’s gone back to spring now – was to get the British public more active and fundraising at the same time. We linked it in to try to get schools to do their school sports days in that week to try to raise money for Comic Relief as well but linking it to schools. They had medals that they would get given and those medals had my face on them. It wasn’t a very big hit so there’s probably thousands of those medals around somewhere with my gruesome face on them.
“2004 was Roger Bannister’s 50th anniversary of breaking the four-minute mile, so a lot of the challenges we came up with were based on doing something for a mile. We set up quite a lot of mile runs around the country. Some people did more than a mile as a challenge but a mile is something that most people can get involved in and feel that it’s an achievement and get some recognition. When you’ve got millions of people all around the country doing the same thing on the same day it’s pretty spectacular.”
Sir Steve’s sitting room contains quite a few stacked boxes of board games but he denies that, as a family, they play them that much.
“No, not really, but we’re a difficult family to buy presents for and so at Christmases we tend to… My eldest sister likes to do games at christmas time. Not necessarily board games but it tends to be a pretty standard present for us. We tend to have quite a lot of Monopoly sets and we have a Top Trumps that was based on the Olympics, which is one that I was given. I was one of the ambassadors for Top Trumps at the 2012 Games so there is a card of me in there!”
This, of course, begs the question, is Steve competitive when he plays family games at Christmas?
“I’m competitive at everything, but bad at everything except rowing.”
We can’t agree. This man who was a key part of bringing about both Sport Relief and the 2012 London Olympics is very clearly very good at a lot more than rowing.