Great Sporting Moments: Steve Redgrave wins fifth successive Olympic gold
Steve Redgrave had already won gold in four successive Olympics. His bid for an unprecedented fifth was the toughest challenge of all. James Lawton salutes a seminal moment of sheer sporting guts.
Monday 13 July 2009
It still looks ridiculous when you write it down: 0.38 of a second, then measure it against 2,000 metres of the glassy lake in Australia on that September morning nine years ago. That dawn when the flags of the Olympic nations hung limp and the tension rose with the brilliant sun burning away the mist - and then you remember the near-death agony of the winners and losers before they could celebrate or grieve the micro moment that was now gone for ever.
Nought point 38. . . You cannot take half a breath in such a grain of time, you cannot formulate a thought. Maybe it is an age in the Olympic blue riband, the 100-yard dash. In rowing, it can be no more than a single convulsion.
All you can do, when it has gone, is reflect that if that 0.38 of a second had not been absorbed so completely in the effort, that great atavistic yearning to win - and if, by some terrible negligence, it had been separated from all those other nanoseconds of striving - a life which has become synonymous with that courage which beats down all obstacles would not be the same because, at the heart of it, there would be a great and unshakeable sense of waste.
It is a big reflection, perhaps, but it is one Sir Steve Redgrave makes every day of his life.
Twenty-four hours after he won his record-breaking fifth gold medal in five Olympics in the company of Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster, Redgrave admitted he was still fighting to arrange his emotions, still trying to assess what had been achieved and, most taxing of all, arrive at the meaning of it.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this difficulty was his inability to communicate his feelings to Pinsent, with whom he had also shared gold in the Olympics of Barcelona and Atlanta.
When Pinsent gathered sufficient breath he clambered down the boat, past the prone Foster, to embrace Redgrave and then sprawl into the water. "I knew how much it meant to me," Pinsent explained. "I knew that in a flash; but then I also realised how much more it must mean to Steve, all that effort stretching back to Los Angeles in 1984, so, of course, I wanted to put my arms around him."
Back in Sydney in a big room filled with celebration, you could see that Redgrave was indeed still wrestling with his deepest feelings, all those accumulated years of fighting the advice of doctors who said that he was facing impossible odds by making such demands on a body plagued first by colitis, the inflammation of the bowels, and then diabetes. There was a look in his eye which flashed a red light against even a hint of anything which might be seen as glib or triumphalist.
Eventually, he said: "Sometimes you feel things that run just too deeply for words. Maybe one day in the future, I will be able to say to Matthew what knowing him, working with him, all these years has meant. But then, I don't know. Maybe it will be left unsaid. Maybe it will be unsaid because it doesn't really need to be said. You know, I don't think it really matters. What is important, and can never be forgotten as long as you live, is that you have connected with someone, and together you have got things done. We both know what was done yesterday."
Such awareness, as it happened, went beyond the winning boat house, and if in his final victory Redgrave was somewhat - as he had always been - aloof from the normal abandonment that sometimes comes with the most striking success, he did reveal that he had been touched by one comment on the slipway. "The father of one of the New Zealand four [they finished sixth] came up to me and said: 'I didn't come to see my son beaten, but if it had to happen, I'm glad he was beaten by you.'"
Such a sentiment was embraced all along the bank of Penrith Lake, and not least by the Italian stroke, Carlo Mornati, one of the four men on the wrong side of 0.38. Mornati was one of the keys to the morning, because even Redgrave's natural reserve could not disguise his overriding concern as the team pushed their boat on to the lake for an early paddle. Redgrave rated the Italians. They had beaten the British team in Lucerne a few months earlier, and the effect was to create an open wound. Redgrave was upset that the draw had not placed the teams against each other on the way to the final race. There was a point to be made, a little psychological adjustment was required as Redgrave still smarted over the debacle in Lucerne, which was the first time in 11 years he had finished out of the first three in an international race. A measure of revenge had been achieved in a World Cup race in which the Italians were beaten, but Lucerne, it was easy to see, still rankled.
The day before the Olympic race, the 38-year-old Redgrave admitted his worry over the threat of Mornati and his hulking team-mates Valter Molea, Riccardo Dei Rossi and Lorenzo Carboncini. He said: "The only thing that has been disappointing to me is that so far we haven't had the chance to beat the Italians here.
"We wanted to beat them before the final, because we wanted to convince everybody, especially the Italians, that we are the best. When you carry that aura on to the water, it has an effect on everyone. We believe we are the best, anyway, but after losing to them in Lucerne it was important to hit back. We are 1-1 now, but that leaves the issue a little open, and I don't like that.
"Everything has gone well - and I feel particularly relaxed. Time is passing quickly and the mood is good. I love it when we go down to the lake and work before the light comes."
When Redgrave came to the morning which would decide his place in Olympic history, only the Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich stood beyond his reach. Gerevich won six titles in the six Olympics between 1932 and 1960, but then, fencing is fine and delicate and requires great physical sharpness. It is not like rowing. It doesn't eviscerate, it doesn't drain the very last of your physical reserves.
The men that Redgrave would go past if he won golds in five Games were both Americans, and both legends. When Carl Lewis won the long jump in Atlanta four years earlier, he was completing an extraordinary run of success in every Olympics from Los Angeles in 1984. And there was the Man with the Golden Arm, the legendary New York discus thrower, Al Oerter, who always found something extra to beat off more favoured opposition in four Olympics, most dramatically in Tokyo in 1964 when he won despite withering pain from rib and back injuries.
These were members of the highest category of Olympians and now Redgrave, long after he had sworn to his most patient wife, Ann, a doctor and rower who competed in the Los Angles Olympics, that he would no longer push his body and their marriage to the limits, was seeking to join them.
He said he was doing it mostly for his team-mates who had not known Olympic glory, and no doubt there was something to that. But then it wasn't - it couldn't be - entirely a matter of altruism.
Redgrave, he might one day concede, had the addiction of all natural born winners. He wanted to keep winning, even if he did declare after his fourth gold in Atlanta that if anyone ever again saw him near a boat they had his permission to shoot him. To be at Penrith Lake, to have worked at such an extreme level of fitness while dealing with two serious illnesses and to be close to a unique achievement was itself an epic dedication of a peculiarly intense kind. There is no light relief in rowing, no respite, and sometimes the pressure of it can become unbearable. In Atlanta, Redgrave had been involved in an explosive confrontation with team-mate Jonny Searle. On the eve of the final in Sydney, Richard Budgett, who rowed to gold with Redgrave at the start of the story in Los Angeles 16 years earlier, was in awe of his old crewmate. He said: "When he came into our boat before Los Angeles, he brought so much power and commitment, he quickened us so much, and now after so long when I look at what he has done and what he is still doing I can only say it is phenomenal. "When I think of myself, I just know I couldn't have done it, however hard I tried. Not beyond the age of 33 or 34. I would have deemed it impossible. On top of it all is his diabetes and ulcerative colitis. He has had more than enough reasons to give up, including the need to inject insulin and doing all the blood tests.
"Treating diabetes is tedious. There is also the fact that in one way rowing is like childbirth, the pain is so acute, so bad, your body is saying: 'For God's sake, don't put me through that again.' This is particularly so at the Olympics, where everything is tested - your mind, your body, but most of all your heart and your spirit. Going through five Olympics, it is unbelievable."
Before the final, the sports minister Kate Hoey, was not quite sure how believable was the possibility of Redgrave winning one more gold. So she covered her bets, issuing two statements to the media. One anticipated victory, the other defeat. The first said: "No words can express how proud of Steve Redgrave we feel in a victory so well deserved. It is a victory that makes him the greatest Olympic athlete of all time." The other one read: "His place in Olympic history is still assured in spite of the result. He is a truly remarkable athlete and a great ambassador for British sport."
By the time the second statement was thrown into history's shredding machine - precisely five minutes, 56.24 seconds after the starter's gun - the division between win and loss had been rowed to an excruciatingly fine point, and Redgrave's suspicions about Mornati and his crew had been dramatically vindicated. They were indeed the team to beat, the team to grind down, but they made the task hellish. Long before the finish, Pinsent was dismayed by their persistence - alarmed that the blue vests were growing larger in his vision precisely at the time when every fibre of his body and his mind told him they should be retreating, along with the second greatest threat to the British boat, the Australians.
But the Azzurri kept coming, and Pinsent thought: "Who are these guys, what are they made of?"
Redgrave, his worst fears confirmed, yelled for more water, deeper, more powerful strokes, and afterwards the log of the race reminded the rowers of the attrition that had taken them to the very point of collapse. Their bow was ahead after eight strokes, and it was to stay ahead under the most enormous pressure, but the margin had shrunk alarmingly at the finish.
At the first mark, they were 0.88 seconds ahead of the Australians; at the halfway point, the Italians had claimed second place and were just 0.46 seconds behind. It was then that Redgrave's cries became most insistent. It was time to crush the Italians, the last threat to an extraordinary ambition. "You go beyond pain," Pinsent said later. "You just know that everything is wasted if you let go for a moment. Frankly, it becomes a bit of a blur if you are driven hard enough ... and the Italians drove us that hard."
Yet at the three-quarter mark, it seemed that perhaps the crisis had passed. The lead, under the weight of Redgrave's exhortations had stretched to almost a second or, if you like, a discernible patch of blue water. But it was not clear; indeed it was becoming more congested by the stroke.
"In the end, it is quite simple," says Pinsent. "It is you or them and no amount of pain is too much to set against the horror of it not being you. You cannot let it all go, all that work, all that hurting, because you cannot find one last push for the line." Redgrave and his men found it, and when it was over they embraced not only each other but the vanquished. Winners and losers had been united in the extremity of their effort - and the fineness of the margin that separated them.
Mornati was found sitting alone, gazing across the water that was empty now, and eerie in the quiet that followed the cheers and the groans. "It was, anyway, a great race and the boys and I can take satisfaction in that we tried so hard and went so close. It is no shame to lose to a boat which contains Redgrave. He is not only beyond praise, he is beyond imagination."
In another place, the Australian stroke, Bo Hanson, fingered his bronze medal as he echoed the sentiments of Mornati. "Like the Italians, we had our hopes and we thought that we might just crack Redgrave. But the old man did something unbelievable today. Could such a thing ever happen again? Probably not."
Four years later in the hills outside Athens, Redgrave stood beside another lake to watch his team-mates Pinsent and Cracknell win another gold, this time by the even smaller margin of eight hundredths of a second. Now the Canadians were the threat, and the lead changed three times before Pinsent was again required to hold off a desperate late challenge. The bows were so close at the finish that the crews had to wait several seconds for the result to be flashed on the screen.
Pinsent wept copiously after being given his fourth Olympic medal. He said it was over, one Olympiad short of the extraordinary goal Redgrave had made for himself. It would be too hard to go on, he said, too punishing, and maybe a little too obsessive. Back beside the lake outside Sydney, Redgrave had vowed one day to say all that was needed to be said to Pinsent, or not to say it if he deemed that to be most appropriate. Now in Greece, that day, surely, had arrived. It was, after all, a day of the most glorious and finely drawn closure for his most enduring associate in an unforgiving sport.
What did he say in the Greek hills? Who knows? Perhaps, as Redgrave had suggested it might be, it was enough just to stand together beside another stretch of water and agree that certain things had indeed been done. Things they would never forget, no more than anyone who saw them happen and wondered if, just for once, and then twice, time had stood still.
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