As tough as old Bootsie

The Dave Bedford Interview: Yesteryear's hedonistic young hell-raiser now sagely, and soberly, runs the London Marathon
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Thirty years ago he was up there with George Best as one of sport's incorrigible hell-raisers. The hairy monster of athletics whose name was on everybody's lips, not least his own. Dave Bedford revelled in being the bearded braggart of sport, giving the V-sign to officialdom, filling the stadiums wherever he ran and dallying with the dolly birds.

Those were the days when nandrolone was just a tinkle in a chemist's test-tube. To Bedford, the only performance-enhancing substances which mattered were Guinness and gumption. He chuckles as he reminisces. "The trouble with sport now is that there aren't any great characters left. It is all too serious, too intense. No one enjoys themselves any more."

Bedford certainly did not limit his ration of enjoyment, even if things sometimes went ingloriously wrong. "Stand by your beds and watch me win a gold medal for Britain," he exclusively urged readers of the Sun during the Munich Olympics. He finished sixth and ran off the track weeping. His was a career always destined to end in tears, but there are no regrets, no recriminations. "I had a marvellous time. It was a different era. What was wrong with being young, good at sport andhaving a laugh? You couldn't do it today."

There hasn't been a bigger name in British athletics before or since, in terms of selling tickets. So it seems appropriate that, three decades later, Bedford should still be in the business of pulling them in, and sports audiences don't come any bigger than that which annually lines the streets of London for what Bedford considers is the greatest pro-am free show on earth.

The erstwhile night-club owner, arch-revolutionary and formerdirector of the International Athletes Club - the track and field trades union - is now nicely settled into his administrative role as the Flora London Marathon Man, and aspoacher-gamekeeper conversions go, his is definitely in the gold-medal class. Bedford is not only the international race director but is also responsible for marketing and promoting the entire event. From rebel to establishment man in suit, even writing letters to theTimes; it is a remarkable transition for someone whose running battles with the blazers were legendary.

Twenty-eight years have passed since they tried to drum him out of the Olympics as a shamateur. "Yes, I got paid in those days, but everyone knew what was going on - you couldn't even call it beer money, because it hardly covered what we drank." Twenty-seven years since he dismantled the world 10,000 metres record in 27 minutes 30.80 seconds. He may have no medal to show for it but Bootsie, as he was popularly known, was one of the finest distance runners Britain has ever produced, holding at one time or another every UK record from 2,000 to 10,000 metres, including the steeplechase. He also won a world cross-country title, running, asalways, from the front.

And now he runs the London Marathon. He's also done so literally, twice. "I did the very first one in 1981. I was in night-clubs at the time and I was pissed out of my mind, with no sleep and a curry inside me which I'd eaten at 5am. I don't remember much about it. But when I did it again 10 years later I ran quite a respectable three hours three minutes."

Respectable is the Bedford by-word these days. He's been beavering away on the marathon's behalf for the past eight years, a job, which, he says, has "given me my life back" after his divorce, a near-fatal burst colon and being ousted from is post as honorary secretary of the now defunct British Athletic Federation "by a bunch of old farts".

Rebel he may have been, but now he preaches athletics fundamentalism as a back-to-the-grassroots man. A former president of his one and only club, Shaftesbury-Barnet Harriers, he can still be seen marking out their cross-country courses on wintry weekends. For some time, too, he ran this country's antidoping unit. Bedford has always been a vehement campaigner against drugs. In his heyday there wasn't much of it about. At least, not much that was heard about. "Looking back now I know there was blood doping going on with some of myrivals, notably the Finns and East Germans. That's been proven. I didn't realise it at the time, but even if I had I would have believed I could still have beaten them."

And now there is nandrolone. Bedford nods and sighs: "I just don't know what to think. Like everyone else I am not sure about the real implications of this current spate of positives. The cynics will say that something has changed with the testing and that those who were once getting away with it are now getting caught. Others will take a kinder view, saying it's being taken accidentally.

"But you have to say that anyone who maintains that it comes from muscle-building supplements has to be at the very least stupid if they've kept on taking those supplements after all this controversy. Personally I can't believe they are that stupid. The very least you do is make sure everything has been tested and cleared. I have very strong personal views about doping. I may have been a bit of a lad, but cheating in sport is the one thing you don't do. It's the worst, the very worst. It totally destroys what competition is all about."

But even Bedford wonders whether, had he been competing in this highly pressured age, with the sort of prize-money available now that he could only drool about when he was running, would he have been tempted?

"It's a question I have often asked myself. I like to think I would have been big-headed or pigheaded enough to have said, 'No, I'll do it on my own.' That's what I'd like to think, but thankfully no one ever put that sort of temptation my way. But I'll tell you this, with a son of 16 who is a good junior athlete I recognise absolutely the dangers of letting go the fight against drugs. If you say well, they're all taking the stuff so who cares, you abdicate that fight and ensure that my son's generation of athletes, and every future generation, has no choice. They'd have to take drugs, and that's why it has to be fought against."

Fortunately, says Bedford, the London Marathon has always been a drugs-free zone. "I'm not saying there are not any drugs issues in marathon running, but thank God we haven't been affected by it." And, of course, he anticipates that nothing nasty will blight what is planned as London's biggest-ever street party on 16 April. The millennium marathon will be the 20th, and Bedford and his team have assembled the best elite field of the world's fastest and finest marathoners (12 of them with times under two hours eight minutes). Some £50,000 will also be spent on providing entertainment along the course, which this year passes by the London Eye, an even bigger wheel than Bedford was himself in his pomp.

"There'll be 50 bands, 80 pubs and 35 schools participating, with 30 hot-air balloons and probably half-amillion people watching the whole festival. Prince Naseem Hamed will start the race. It will be stunning, I promise you. I love all that razzmatazz. It's absolutely me"

Bedford's selling of the marathon to punters, sponsors and television has helped make it the greatest one- day fundraising event in the UK. Over the years it has raised £20m for charity, and last year contributed its £2m profit towards recreational facilities for London.

The aim, says Bedford, is to make everyone of the 30,000-odd participants feel special. "When I talk to people about the marathon I say that, apart from having sex for the first time, running the marathon will be the most exciting thing they do in their entire lives."

Old Bootsie may have mellowed ("I wouldn't swop a day's fishing with my son Tom for an Olympic gold medal") but at 50 but he has remained sufficiently eccentric to turn up at events in Britain and Europe in helmet and leathers on a 1100cc Kawasaki, and while the shaggy curls and Zapata moustache could do with a dab of Grecian 2000, his enthusiasm remains eternally youthful.

However, he does have genuine fears for the future of the sport he cherishes. "The marathon has gone one way and athletics the other," he says, pointing downwards. "As I said, there's a scarcity of real characters. But things can change of course. Coe, Cram, Ovett, Thompson and Christie all came along after me, and someone could emerge overnight to bring back the crowds. The trouble these days is that if you do unearth a new star, a year later he might get done for drugs and you're back where you started."

But after a lifetime in the sport Bedford is still clearly in love with it. "Sure there are loads of wankers, but there's an awful lot of nicepeople too. As long as you know the difference, you can make it work."