The Nick Townsend column: Sorry Cristiano, modern 'slavery' is Olympic rowing

Gold medallist Williams explains how one coach would give Sir Alex a run for his money when the prize is pride
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The Independent Online

Just 20 days remain now. Depending on your perspective, 16 August is a significant date. For many, it is The Day. The start of the Premier League season, when those posturing, badge-kissing, agent-driven mercenaries re-emerge, some of whom no doubt were heartened to have it confirmed by football's most powerful man and buffoon-in-residence, Sepp Blatter, that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo are victims of modern slavery.

And there will be a surge of hyperbole as the all-pervasive football fever afflicts us again, with no known antibiotics, as we all eulogise some modestlytalented performers, many acquired in acts of desperation by managers driven by fear.

But then, as you sit conversing with a man who, back in 2004, signed a four-year commitment to Team GB and specifically a select club of four strong men and true, a character whose "contract" is worth no more than his Lottery funding through UK Sport and sponsorship by Camelot, you are left in no doubt as to which will be the more enriching experience that same day. If Steve Williams should claim a second Olympic gold in the men's coxless four at Beijing and should happen to place his lips on the emblem of Team GB, it may be the only such act of the day performed with authenticity.

Now this is not about making some crude, almost religious, distinction between what is effectively an amateur sport run with professional élan and the national game. Not for a moment are we demanding a separation: "Olympic Games-playing angels over here; devil worshippers at the altar of avarice over there." It is Williams' choice to endure the pain, the relentless training, testing and monitoring – a daily prick in the ear is for testing lactate levels, not a variation of Joe Orton's play – the possible heartache of non-selection and ultimately defeat, and the exhortation of the team's coach, Jürgen Grobler, who sounds as if he has honed his man-management skills at the Sir Alex Ferguson Schoolof Hairdrying.

No, it is simply that when you spend time with Williams and his crew-mates – Tom James, Peter Reed and Andy Triggs Hodge – as they break from their preparations at the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake near Reading, it does place in sharp focus the relative purity of the Olympics in a sports world in which integrity is too readily surrendered.

When earlier this year Williams lost his place in the blue riband boat, the coxless four in which Redgrave and Pinsent were both previous occupants, it could have been the end of his Olympic ambitions. The 32-year-old, Warwick-born man now living in Henley-on-Thames, is British rowing's only Olympic gold medallist in the Beijing squad. He recalls: "Back in March, there were five of us in the boat, and I was sharing my seat, if you like." The team were at a training camp in Varese when Grobler called him to his room for "a chat" and told him that another rower, Richard Egington, was to replace him in the four.

Williams adds: "You can see Jürgen didn't enjoy doing it. Here's one bloke who's trying desperately hard to fulfil his dreams, and he might be the person who puts an end to that. But he knows that was his duty to do it. As I walked out, I knew that the way in which I responded was a defining moment." As it transpired, Williams won his place back before the season's first World Cup event. And he has guarded it resolutely ever since.

He tells of how he and Eging-ton spoke in the changing room the day after Grobler made his decision. "We both said, 'We were mates before this, we'll be mates after it.' We still are." Egington is now in the eight.

In a sense, Grobler's role, to oversee the four personally and the other British men's crews indirectly through his team of coaches to ensure that they reach a summit of performance on key dates in August 2008, culminating in the finals on 16 and 17 August, is more onerous than that of any football manager. In international rowing, you cannot go out and play a defeat out of your system the following Saturday.

Grobler has been a remarkable acquisition. By comparison, Ferguson is still on a learning curve. It was back in 1972, at a time when Fergie was still dishing it out as a doughty striker for Falkirk, that the East German arrived. Thirty-five years on, we are all acutely aware of what the Scot has achieved. Rather less credit is offered to the man who has been responsible for the ascendancy of British rowing in the world order.

Williams puts it succinctly: "Four guys have to hit an absolute peak on one session, on one day, in four years. His strength is being able to do that. It's a huge balancing act to ensure that we all have power and endurance and mental and emotional preparation." There is also, apparently, some decidedly Fergie-like man-management.

Williams, who rowed to gold with Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Ed Coode in Athens, remembers a sense of wellbeing after the four's victoryin the semi-final. "We had been very pumped up for that race after an average row in the heats, and had won it much more comfortably and in much better style.

"That evening, Jürgen showed us a replay of the race, and he really got stuck into myself and James Cracknell. He told us that, if we rowed like that on the Saturday, we'd lose. It was a technical issue over our stroke. He felt it was holding back Matthew and Ed, holding back the rhythm and holding back the speed. He told us we were letting the four down.

"He doesn't shout, he doesn't kick football boots at you [alluding to Ferguson's alleged treatment of David Beckham], but if he's not pleased with what you're doing, he doesn't have to shout. It's scary enough. When his face starts going red, and the eyes pop out of his head, and the English becomes a little bit more broken and maybe a few German words come in, then you know you've got to make a change. Initially, you feel pretty defensive. But after that, we had five of the most productive sessions that four had ever had."

And ultimately they secured the gold, albeit by the closest of margins. It came with enhanced status, a certain mystique, honours – Williams received an MBE – and an open-topped bus ride. Yet most important for him were "the quieter moments". He explains: "The first night I got back from Athens, a very good friend of mine who'd shared that journey with me and who'd seen me in all the ups and downs leading up to Athens, had put a sign over the door saying, 'Welcome back, Steve'. His kids had made a red carpet for me, and he'd invited the whole street round."

Cynics may suggest that does not represent much recognition for four years' arduous preparation. With a business partner, Williams wants to go into corporate team development, "using my story that people want to listen to, though it's nothing like Steve [Redgrave] and Matthew's [Pinsent], of course. They're two massive brands." He concludes: "In one way, I've got a lot to lose. I took a big risk not stopping in Athens and going out at the top. But it's been a source of energy and motivation for me. Now I'm motivated to ensure that I've got an even better story to tell."

The rewards are unlikely to compare with certain elite sportsmen's £150,000 a week. But then there are certain things in life on which you can place no financial value. Their richness is expressed only in terms of pride within. Something perhaps worth remembering in three Saturdays' time.

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