The Brian Viner Interview: Black pep talk has the golden touch
`Kevin Keegan is brilliant at motivation. A master. And when we get together it's hilarious... We have read all the same books'
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Wednesday 02 June 1999
But Black fully deserved his plaudits. He had burst onto the scene in 1986, a 20-year-old beanpole from Southampton Athletics Club, a protege of Kriss Akabusi's, and plainly a lad of rare ability. He swiftly won both the European and Commonwealth 400m titles, adding gold in both relays, and cockily declared that "I never get injured". Fate, though, has a malicious sense of humour. Injury kept Black out of the Olympics in 1988, and crippled his chances of a medal in 1992.
For years he contended with a succession of nasty injuries and remedial operations. There were some serious illnesses, too, like Epstein-Barr virus, an extremely unsociable cousin of glandular fever. Bizarrely, he also became very ill with psittacosis, which is generally caught from parrots, making Roger Black one of the very few sportsmen who can fairly claim to have been as sick as a parrot. He was, moreover, one of the few top athletes with a leaking heart valve. It was detected when he was 11 and prevented him from taking part in cross-country events at Portsmouth Grammar School. When I was 11 I might just have accepted a leaking heart valve in lieu of cross-country, but then I didn't quite exude the same athletic promise.
Anyway, all things considered, Black's silver medal struck quite a blow for the power of medicine, as was only appropriate for a doctor's son. Besides, there were those who considered it an honorary gold, for there was something not quite mortal about the man who beat him, the phenomenal Michael Johnson.
We are discussing all this in the pretty conservatory of the Halcyon Hotel in west London - or, to be more precise, Black is discussing, while I slip the odd word in edgeways. He is an engaging man, one of life's enthusiasts, and he's getting a big buzz from presenting "Athletics Focus" on BBC1's Grandstand. If you had to knock him, you could possibly say that he is not on overly familiar terms with humility. But then it often takes a streak of arrogance to forge ahead in sport and Black's arrogance is tempered with charm, a combination which should also help him get ahead in the wonderful world of broadcasting.
The job he most enjoys, actually, is not telly-presenting but motivational speaking. "I love seeing people fulfilling their potential," he says. "Conversely, I loathe seeing people waste their talent. Motivational speaking is my passion." He's good at it, too. He tells me how it works, throwing in impressive words like "synergy," and within a couple of minutes I am simply itching to go home and write a best-selling novel.
Black has waxed motivational to the middle managers of British Airways, Sainsburys and NatWest, among other companies. He has even given Colgate back its ring of confidence. And he does so with a 45-minute speech in which he recalls how his own athletics career was transformed by a single pep talk from his friend, the former 400- metre runner David Jenkins. "He told me not to focus on anything I couldn't control, like weather conditions, or the performances of others, only to worry about the things I could control. From that moment, I stopped fearing failure."
One of the greatest motivators, adds Black, is the England football manager Kevin Keegan, a boyhood idol who has become a firm friend. "Kevin is brilliant at it. A master. And when we get together it's hilarious, because we have read all the same books. Like me, he believes in potential. He just wants to get the best out of his players. I don't know Glenn Hoddle, and I'm sure he's a decent guy, but I thought it was astonishing that he didn't put his arm round David Beckham after that sending-off in the World Cup. Then you hear that Tony Adams did, and the effect it obviously had on Beckham. I've met Tony Adams. You just think, `top man.' "
Sometimes, when he is addressing the national sales force of Joe Bloggs plc, Black describes in detail the day he won Olympic silver. It is stirring stuff, all the more so as it combines the remarkable with the banal. I ask him to talk me through it, and he is delighted to oblige. "I woke up knowing it wasn't a normal day. You couldn't pretend it was just another race. I'd run a fantastic semi, so I knew I wasn't going to run a bad race but, even so, some people crack in Olympic finals. The final wasn't until 8.30pm, so I had all day to wait. I played chess with Steve Smith, Curtis Robb and I think Jonathan Edwards. Then I lay down and visualised the race. I went to the warm-up track on my own. Most athletes have their coaches with them, but I said, `leave me, I'll be there'. I got on the bus from the warm-up track to the stadium. That's the moment it hits you. There was just me, Michael Johnson, two Jamaicans, Iwan Thomas, another American... and there was silence. Nobody talked. Actually, I listened to my music on headphones - Van Morrison - which wasn't really allowed. We got off the bus and went into a little room, where our spikes were checked. Then we had to sit in lane order on a wooden bench. We were told to put our spikes on, and I got out some talcum powder to dust my feet and spilled some on Michael Johnson's kitbag, and I remember thinking `Christ, I hope he doesn't think that was deliberate, some sort of gamesmanship.' He didn't say anything. He doesn't communicate in those situations.
"We went out into the stadium. There were 85,000 people there. I always put my hand on my heart to check my pulse, just before being called to my marks. In the old days it would be going boom-boom-boom-boom. This time it was boom ... boom ... boom. It was the same the year before, in the World Championships final, and then I thought `My God, I'm not ready'. But this time I realised that it was the way to be. Calm.
"The race started and after 200m Michael Johnson started to make his move. I remember thinking, `leave him'. With 100m to go I knew there was nobody else ahead of me. I crossed the line, shook Michael's hand, went over to Iwan Thomas, but it was all very personal for me. Everyone wanted me to go crazy but I couldn't. I was 30 years old and had been through some pretty shit times, but it was as if all those injuries had been eradicated. It sounds a bit spiritual, but I knew I would carry that moment with me for the rest of my life. On the podium I knew that it wouldn't get any better.
"The funny thing is that even when you've won your medal, you still have to get back to the Olympic Village. You've got to get the bus with everyone else. But the bus was full and so I ended up sitting on the floor by the driver, with my medal. Later, I was supposed to meet Steve Smith in a bar. I only stayed for about half an hour and walked back through Atlanta on my own. Which was perfect because it was all so personal."
The Olympic silver medal was the crowning achievement of Black's running career, prompting the question: why did he not immediately retire? His reply is characteristically honest. "Because I'm not stupid. I hadn't struggled that long to walk away from all the perks of being Olympic silver medallist. I'm not saying I just ran for the money, but even so. Of course the irony is that I didn't get the money because the [British Athletics] Federation went bankrupt. But, at the time, how could I have looked my manager in the face. And my coach. And my girlfriend?"
Black adds that he would not have retired even if he'd known then what he knows now. Namely, that the British team selectors would insult him by not choosing him to represent Britain in the 1998 European Championships in Budapest. Or at any rate, by not giving him the chance to prove himself. Last July, in a trial race in Sheffield, Black finished .003sec behind the third-placed Solomon Wariso. The selectors had two further weeks in which to deliberate, yet decided that day to pick Wariso ahead of Black.
It was a not-unprecedented case of athletics administrators grabbing a starting pistol and shooting themselves in the foot. Amid widespread indignation on his behalf, Black promptly resigned as Great Britain team captain, then hung up his spikes. He insists that he no longer nurses a grievance, never even thinks about it. Yet almost a year on, the affair clearly still rankles. In fact he recalls the day as vividly as that rather happier day in Atlanta.
"I drove back down the motorway knowing I had two weeks to prove that I had 44.5 in me. I kept saying to myself, `come on Rog, get focused'. I got home at 11.30 and at 11.45 the phone rang. It was Graham Knight, the national sprint coach. He said, `we've just had the selection meeting and we're taking the first three'. I was speechless, and I am rarely speechless. Then I asked him why they were taking the decision when they had another two weeks? I said `Graham, you're not thinking straight'. I was very upset." To the point of tears? "There were tears, yeah. I wasn't asking for favouritism. Just fairness. Two or three selectors have subsequently told me that they regret what they did. And I do think I would have been a medallist in Budapest."
Still, Black's credo, in life as on the track, is to look ahead. And his circumstances have changed in numerous positive ways over the past 12 months, not least when he broke a thousand hopeful hearts by marrying his girlfriend, Elsa de Vassoigne. She is a 400m runner, too, from Martinique. We look forward to the pitter-patter of tiny, Nike- encased feet.
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