'I never want to see another boat'

OLYMPIC GAMES: Pat Butcher assesses the high achiever who can rest on his laurels
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If Anyone deserved to win Britain's first gold medal of the Atlanta Games, it was Steven Redgrave, who with partner Matthew Pinsent successful defended the coxless pairs title they had won in Barcelona in 1992.

There is, of course, much more to it than that. Redgrave was already high in the Olympic pantheon with his three gold medals. Now, he stands atop it. Redgrave becomes the first Briton in the history of the Modern Olympics to win gold in four successive games. Redgrave's success story started in Los Angeles in 1984. But so stern is this sport that by 1990 he had already seen off two partners with whom he had won two Olympic golds, two world titles and two Commonwealth golds - Andy Holmes and Simon Berrisford. Now it seems that Redgrave and Pinsent may retire together after being unbeaten for five years.

Redgrave's commitment to rowing has been such that he once joked that his coffin would probably have row-locks. In the same vein yesterday, he underlined his departure with: "If you ever catch me near a boat again, shoot me!" Pinsent surprised everybody by implying that he, too, would be retiring. If so, they would both deserve it.

There are no free rides in the Olympics nowadays, and certainly not in rowing, one of the most contested and international of sports. And we in Britain are not short of fine prac- titioners. The team is second in numbers only to athletics. Yet popular perceptions of the sport still focus on Henley, with its exclusivity and Hooray Henry's tipping pink gins down their craws, and summer idylls messing about on the river. That may help to explain why Redgrave is still a marginal figure to the British public despite being one of the greatest sportspeople this country has produced.

Redgrave's reticence, a product, perhaps, of early learning difficulties, does not make him an immediately accessible figure, but if anyone deserves to prosper from his sporting achievements, it is the quiet man from Marlow. The weather for the final day of rowing was as sombre as the mood at Lake Lanier - as it was everywhere in and around Atlanta after the overnight bombing. But the life-enhancing aspect of sport was never more welcome. The rowing medal ceremonies have a lovely touch. The medallists paddle gently up to a pontoon, moored a few metres from the shore. They get out of their boats, and the medals are brought to them.

There had been much apprehension about the Australian pair of David Weightman and Robert Scott, who had looked so good in their early rounds. The two pairings had never met. But the Britons were acutely aware of a similar situation in Barcelona, and what the Searle brothers had done to the "unbeatable" Abbagnale brothers, coming back from a huge deficit to defeat the Italians. But the first kilometre put paid to the Australians.

The Searles, with Tom Foster and Rupert Obholzer, failed to raise their game this time in the coxless fours and had to settle for the bronze medal. The spotlight thus remained firmly on Redgrave. The British fans present were never in doubt. They had a two-metre square flag, with four gold medals painted on it, flapping in the breeze. With the dates painted under the medals, the legend ran: "Steve Redgrave - Greatest Olympian Ever". It was difficult to argue.