The final flood of emotion

Redgrave and Pinsent turn rowing into the people's sport - but is it a parting gift?

Penrith Lakes this was not. In place of the gentle spring breeze blowing down the Olympic course, a decent southerly whipped the flags and ensured that the biggest crowd for a rowing event in Britain forsook their blazers for more practical autumnal dress. No one cared to estimate the exact numbers, but the queues stretched back to the motorway through the morning and the car parks were full - capacity 5,000 - by mid-afternoon. And the central figure in the establishment of rowing as the new rock 'n' roll was mobbed and cheered at every footstep.

Penrith Lakes this was not. In place of the gentle spring breeze blowing down the Olympic course, a decent southerly whipped the flags and ensured that the biggest crowd for a rowing event in Britain forsook their blazers for more practical autumnal dress. No one cared to estimate the exact numbers, but the queues stretched back to the motorway through the morning and the car parks were full - capacity 5,000 - by mid-afternoon. And the central figure in the establishment of rowing as the new rock 'n' roll was mobbed and cheered at every footstep.

Most of the crowds who bicycled, drove and walked to Dorney Lake, the least accessible sporting venue on the planet, did so to honour Steve Redgrave and, dutifully in his daunting shadow, Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell. The BBC cameras anointed the Supersprint Rowing Grand Prix - rowing's equivalent of drag racing - by their presence in recognition of the 7 million viewers who stayed up to the early hours to claim their share of Olympic history. The coxless four duly obliged, propelling Redgrave to an astonishing fifth gold.

The pair had been told of the extraordinary acclaim thestoically phlegmatic British public had accorded their champions. But Australia's own jingoism proved a protective force against the gale-force winds of publicity generated back home. Eleven days after their triumphant welcome back into Heathrow, as gnarled a soldier as Redgrave was still struggling to come to terms with his new status.

Each had their tales of the river to tell. Foster walking along a London street, surprised to find a bus screeching to a halt beside him, the doors swinging open and the driver waving at him. "There were pensioners picking themselves up off the floor because he'd braked so hard. It's incredible." Pinsent, on leaving a London restaurant with his girlfriend, given a standing ovation.

Redgrave had been particularly touched by a story of some English tourists in France. "Apparently, they'd been desperate to find a television to watch the race and had gone from hotel to hotel without any luck until eventually they found a little hotel with a television tuned to the Olympics. They could hardly see the picture, but they gathered round and watched. People have said they can remember exactly where they were when we crossed the line. Since we stepped off the plane, it's just been wall to wall."

Yet, the greatest acknowledgement of Redgrave's rise to the celebrity A list came in the ranks massed along the banks of a reclaimed gravel pit in the Home Counties yesterday. What was happening on the water remained a mystery to most, but any excuse to bring the old band of Redgrave and Pinsent back together - for the very last time - was welcome. Over a 350m course, they were in danger of being outpaced, but no one dared to embarrass them in the middle of their own celebration party. There were races for schools and universities, for pairs and single scullers and to round off a zany schedule, a bewildering series of relay races, which tested the heroes to the limit and brought predictable victory for the British squad.

The press had been wooed on the suspect grounds that, as one of the releases put it, this would be "Steve's last race". But Redgrave, true to his new found status as the people's showman, refused to acknowledge his retirement officially. "I've not really thought about the future and the more I'm asked, the less inclined I am to say anything." He is still smarting from his post-Atlanta outburst and, for all the inducements of his wife, Ann, who bought him a brand new Jaguar to welcome him into life off the water, the man himself was still in teasing mood.

Pinsent was more forthcoming. He is, he says, 70-30 in favour of carrying on, but admitted that part of the motivation stems from a fear of life after rowing. "At the moment I'm enjoying the period of limbo, not having to make a decision or have any commitments," Pinsent said. "I'm enjoying all this carry on, the phone ringing off the hook and being invited up to St Andrews for the Pro-Am. I teed off at 1.51pm, the wind was whistling down the course, I had waterproofs on and a brolly and we finished the 18th with the floodlights on. I loved every minute of it." Foster's future depends on the results of a scan on his back. "I've already lost two discs and a third might mean being unable to walk or sit down. A gold medal is worth a lot, but not that much."

On the pontoon after the last race, Redgrave thanked everyone for everything, but resolutely and typically kept his silence on the one subject of note. He will retire, for sure, but few could blame him for reaping every last reward for his 25 years of unmarked sweat.

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