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.
The Jump: Meet the contestants
The Jump: Meet the contestants
1/12 Amy Childs
Childs is best known for appearing in the first two series of popular reality TV series The Only Way Is Essex. She came fourth in Celebrity Big Brother 8 too, so is quite the reality TV regular...
2/12 Anthea Turner
Famous for presenting TV shows such as Blue Peter and GMTV, as well as two work-out videos. She also featured on Celebrity Big Brother in 2011 but was evicted third.
3/12 Darren Gough
Gough is a retired England cricketer. He took part in Strictly Come Dancing in 2005 and won, much to the amusement and support of his former colleagues. He then became the face of UK supermarket Costcutter before bagging on presenting slot on Talksport.
4/12 Henry Conway
Conway is an English socialite who sometimes styles himself as 'Queen Sloane'. He promotes parties and writes fashion articles. His father is Derek Conway MP - known for the scandal of 2008 in which his sons were overpaid for their work as research assistants.
5/12 Kimberly Wyatt
Wyatt used to sing with Nicole Scherzinger in US girl group The Pussycat Dolls. She left in 2010 and formed a new group called Her Majesty and the Wolves. Her debut solo single 'Derriere' is due for release soon.
6/12 Laura Hamilton
Hamilton is a TV presenter currently working on A Place in the Sun and Beat My Build. She participated in Dancing on Ice in 2011 and finished in second place.
7/12 Marcus Brigstocke
Brigstocke is an English comedian, actor and satirist. He had a small role in Love Actually and has also dabbled in musical theatre.
8/12 Melinda Messenger
Messenger is an English former glamour model. She was a Page 3 girl in The Sun but is now a TV presenter. Her alter ego is Rebecca Rowley.
9/12 Nicky Clarke
Clarke is hairdresser to the stars as well as being a media personality. He owns acclaimed hair salons and received an OBE in February 2008.
10/12 Ritchie Neville
Neville was a member of hit boyband Five in the Nineties. He then moved to Australia to become a restaurateur, wine steward and mixologist.
Sinitta is known for appearing on ITV talent show The X Factor, helping Simon Cowell during the 'judges houses' phase of the competition. She also joined the I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! jungle in the 11th series of the show.
12/12 Sir Steve Redgrave
Redgrave won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games for rowing, plus one bronze. He has won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and was knighted in 2001.
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.