Masterstrokes of a centurion

The awesome oarsman who has a new date with destiny came so close to quitting

Steve Redgrave had a difficult decision to make. Did he fly to the State Opera House in Vienna to rub shoulders with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mark Spitz and Rod Laver at a glittering awards evening last weekend for the Unicef Sportsman of the Century or did he spend his Saturday racing in a makeshift four on the Thames? No prizes for guessing. The retrospectives can wait; Redgrave has work to do in the next century. "I would have loved to have gone," he says. "But nothing should come higher than what I'm trying to achieve at the moment."

Steve Redgrave had a difficult decision to make. Did he fly to the State Opera House in Vienna to rub shoulders with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mark Spitz and Rod Laver at a glittering awards evening last weekend for the Unicef Sportsman of the Century or did he spend his Saturday racing in a makeshift four on the Thames? No prizes for guessing. The retrospectives can wait; Redgrave has work to do in the next century. "I would have loved to have gone," he says. "But nothing should come higher than what I'm trying to achieve at the moment."

Redgrave would take it as an insult to be measured by history while he still has an oar in his giant hands. Not a fleck of reflection tinges his approach to what he calls the "Olympic season" nor will he expect a drop of sentimentality to leak into the selection procedure for a crew already dubbed the Redgrave IV.

His quest to win the fifth consecutive gold which would put him in exclusive company on top of Mount Olympus does not give him the divine right to a seat in the boat. "There are five guys and we can only fit four," he says. "What I've got locked away in the cupboard means nothing. It's what you're capable of doing on 23 September 2000. That's all that matters."

The cusp of the millennium is a pertinent moment to catch an athlete whose hegemony could straddle two centuries. Though he is an hour away from leaving for yet another training camp, in Spain this time - while surveyors, architects and builders are looking at plans for an extension on his house and his packing is still unfinished - he is in a buoyant and receptive mood.

The day before, in a critical midwinter test on the indoor rowing machine, Redgrave had recorded his best time since the last Olympics. More importantly, it was the best time since he was diagnosed with diabetes in the early part of 1997. It might frighten a few rivals to learn that Matthew Pinsent rowed the fastest ever British Ergo test and James Cracknell also recorded a personal best. The British team is in good shape.

"I wasn't 100 per cent sure what was going to happen on that test yesterday," Redgrave says. "Someone asked me beforehand if I was still having energy problems on the tests and I said 'No, I don't think so'. But I still had to go out and do it."

Whether influenced by time or constant battles with his health, Redgrave cuts a mellower figure these days. His brooding silences can still be threatening on cold, damp mornings when the training schedules are not to his liking, his commitment is frighteningly constant, but there is an attractive streak of insecurity in his character now which reflects a career rapidly leaving behind the boundaries of mere sport and heading across the frontiers of medicine. If Lance Armstrong has exploded public perceptions by winning the Tour de France 18 months after recovering from a potentially fatal attack of testicular cancer, Redgrave is absorbing the considerable implications of maintaining superhuman energy levels at the age of 37 while suffering from the debilitating and unpredictable effects of diabetes. It makes him no less an athlete and a very much more sympathetic individual.

"I read about Armstrong and like everyone else was amazed at what he achieved, but I haven't related his problems in any way to my own," Redgrave says. "It's really down to me and how best to cope with the problems I've had." It's not a question of self-doubt, he adds, just frustration. "I've been fighting against illness more than fighting against other people. If I get a good winter behind me, it's got to be a step forward on what has happened the last two years."

Redgrave came close to stepping out of the four 12 months ago after a combination of a virus and the stress of the diabetes had triggered a bout of colitis, an old illness, and prompted a long-term insulin imbalance. "How close?" He pauses, knowing the answer, but wondering whether to trust you with it. "Pretty close." A week, two weeks? "I tried not to put times on it. But sometimes I knew I wasn't performing to the level I would like to perform at, and I felt if I wasn't doing that why should I be involved in a crew that would be pulling me along? There had to be a cut-off point because if I didn't start performing by a certain time, Jürgen [Grobler, the coach] would say, 'Sorry, Steve, we've got to put someone else back in the boat'. I wouldn't have liked it to have got to that."

His energy levels and his weight dropped dramatically. He lost almost six kilos. On the Ergo tests, he would feel great then hit the wall. "No gradual fade off, it was just like someone had switched the light off." Yet, in September, he pocketed his ninth gold medal at a world championships.

The date and place of his next and most significant rendezvous are already etched on Redgrave's consciousness. 23 September, Penrith Lakes, about 40 kilometres to the west of Sydney. There is no barrier between then and now; last Tuesday, a crew from NBC, the US Olympic broadcaster, invaded his house to film a pre-Olympic feature. It was 10 months to the day of the Olympic final. Redgrave had meant to use that as motivation during his Ergo test but, uncharacteristically, had forgotten all about it. The other members of the crew have already sensed the sharper edge.

"The banter drops off a bit and there's less moaning about the training, we just get on and do it," Redgrave says. "If Jürgen says 8am on the water, Matt and I have started our session by 8am. The others come down early, do some stretching, mess about a bit and are on the water at 8.15. James has noticed the difference. We may not be training any harder but the focus is tied to the Olympics now. This is what we've been waiting for. We have to move on every year, but the biggest move we have to make will be this coming year. Every individual in the crew has to improve to make that four go faster and that includes me. I don't need to be stronger than I was four years ago, just make sure I'm not weaker. But I've got to be more focused than I have been over the past three years and learn from the mistakes we made in Atlanta."

At the Leander Club dinner recently, James Cracknell spoke eloquently of the year ahead. He was, he hoped, going to help Steve win his fifth gold and Matt his third. "But, most important of all," he added, "I want to win my first." Inevitably, Redgrave's pursuit of Olympic history will dominate preparations. A media strategy has already been drawn up to ensure some protection from the hype which so engulfed the pair in Atlanta. The bad news, as Redgrave well knows, is that the interest will be multiplied this time, the good news, he also acknowledges, is that he and Pinsent thrive on pressure.

"It will be important how we handle the pressure as a crew," he explains. "In many ways, having two other crew members makes it harder rather than easier. Matt and I have been through it, but the others could get overawed. It's finding the right balance. We're a unit and we're forcing each other to achieve what we want to achieve, but we're also individuals. I've got to trust the others to do their job and I will try to do mine to the best of my ability."

Fear of the future compounded the strain in Atlanta. "Anyone who sees me near a boat again can shoot me," he said famously after victory. Two days later, faced with living his life in the past, the attractions of another Olympic campaign became overwhelming. Redgrave never retired, has not come out of retirement to compete in Sydney, will not admit that this will be his final season. "I honestly don't know how to answer that. I think it will be, but sometimes I think 'Shall I do one more season? I've got nine world championship golds, it would be nice to have 10'."

But why 10? There's always a reason to continue. After the "shoot me" statement last time, it doesn't make any difference anyway. When I say I'm going to stop, people laugh and say I've done that before. If I say I'm going to continue, they tell me I'm too old. We'll see when I get there."

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