Sir Steve Redgrave: Is it all downhill from here - as Olympian dons skis for The Jump

The Olympian has made the leap into reality TV by swapping his oars for a pair of skis. Despite the outfit, the only bit he’s dreading is the jump

If at any point during the next 10 nights you spot Sir Steve Redgrave trying to act brave at the top of an enormous ski jump, you will know something has gone very wrong. The esteemed Olympian’s survival strategy for Channel 4’s latest reality show, The Jump, hinges on never actually jumping.

“Stay out of the bottom two for the whole programme, then finish fourth: that’s the only way you won’t have to do a ski jump. I’m not that fond of heights and I really don’t suit flying through the air, with my body weight.” He’s in Innsbruck, Austria, and I’m in London, so I can’t tell if he’s smiling but it doesn’t sound like it.

Hang on a minute: did I hear that right? Sir Steve? On a reality show? And – get this – one that involves competing against such sporting stalwarts as, er, the 1980s singer Sinitta, Towie star Amy Childs, and former glamour girl Melinda Messenger?

He admits he initially turned it down. But only because he thought he was “10 years too old”. He pauses, adding: “My wife said, ‘You’re crazy; you’re crazy. I can’t believe you’re not biting their hand off.’”

Sir Steve, you see, is a bit of a skiing nut. Actually, scratch that: he’s a lot of a skiing nut. So much so, that he “used to ski while competing”. And let us not forget that, for Sir Steve, “competing” meant striving to become one of Britain’s greatest ever Olympians and bagging five gold medals in a row.

You would think his rowing partner, Sir Matthew Pinsent, who started skiing only after retiring, would have had something to say. But it balanced out, apparently, as Sir Matt rode a motorbike. “You can’t wrap yourself up in cotton wool for 20 years and do nothing,” says Sir Steve, who is honorary president of the British Association of Snowsports Instructors (BASI) and has a Level 1 qualification to teach.

 

He wound up saying yes to Channel 4 when he discovered that, at 51, he wasn’t the oldest: after the Flash Gordon actor Sam Jones withdrew injured, that title belongs to 55-year-old Nicky Clarke, the hairdresser. “I think my insurance policy must be very good, although my wife hates it when I say that! My family know I have a screw loose in some ways!”

Apart from being paid for a “dream job” – he’s always wanted to spend a winter in a ski resort and would live in the mountains if he could – Sir Steve has an ulterior motive to doing the show: nailing skiing. Improving for him means conquering his fear of “taking air on a lip” – a bump on the slope. “I don’t like surprises.” This man doesn’t do underdog, not even when he’s up against a force of nature like a mountain.

I confess I’m still perplexed: reality shows are all about surprises. And  the biggest ones about competitors  are revealed when producers have finished editing the footage. But Sir Steve reckons the secret is not giving them anything to work with. “You’ve got to be aware, and present yourself in a manner you’d like to be seen. I haven’t got anything to hide.”

He likes the fact that they’re doing “real events”: most will feature at next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, including skeleton, ski cross, speed skating, bobsleigh and slalom. Not forgetting ski jumping. “The whole programme comes down to how well you can jump.”

These are still quite early days when we talk, and so far he claims the cricketer Darren Gough is leading the pack. A 16m jump in training helped, making Gough the third best British ski jumper of all time, Sir Steve adds, which says a lot about Britain’s skill on the slopes. But Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s abrupt withdrawal – she couldn’t stand the pressure of being favourite (her father was an Olympic skier) – has opened up Sir Steve’s chances of victory. The others up there are the broadcaster Anthea Turner, and the comedian Marcus Brigstocke, who is pretty handy at speed skating and a fellow snow nut.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to said, ‘You’re crazy’, because of the danger,” he said. “It’s certainly extreme. Not many people do skeleton, not many do bobsleigh, and even fewer do ski jumping.”

Sir Steve sets great store in the protective power of the helmet, which he has made his entire family (he has three children) wear for the past seven years. His big goal as BASI president is to make it compulsory for all British instructors teaching abroad to wear a helmet. “It’s not about them; it’s about the image they’re putting across. There is resistance from some of the older BASI members, but it’s happening. It’s on the agenda at annual meetings.”

He points out that the only reason Michael Schumacher, who hit his head on a rock on an off-piste area in Meribel on 29 December, is “still fighting for his life” is that he was wearing one. That said, Sir Steve made a conscious decision to ski helmet-free while he was competing, on the grounds that it stopped him taking any silly risks.

He’s anxious that Schumacher’s accident doesn’t put people off, adding: “Most sports can be dangerous, but if you give skiing the respect it deserves you should be OK.”

As the former 2012 Legacy Champion he is keen to get more people doing any kind of sport, but realises that’s going to be tough. “It became very apparent early on that there wasn’t any money to spend to make the legacy happen in the way I’d have liked to make it happen.”

But he hasn’t given up hope. “Eighteen months on, we still have a golden opportunity. We’ve got the Commonwealth Games and the Rugby World Cup. We just have to make the best of it.”

Given his pedigree, you can bet that whatever happens during The Jump, Sir Steve will be making the very best of every slope, lip, and, yes, even jump, if it comes down to it.

The Jump starts on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm.

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