Old golden oars waves goodbye

Steven Redgrave rowed majestically into history in Atlanta. Hugh Matheson reports
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The Independent Online
Steven Redgrave took a short paddle across Lake Lanier from the grandstand to the Olympic medal podium as his victory lap for his fourth Olympic gold medal.

There was no resounding cheer for the most decorated old soldier in the game. The crowd was already looking down the course to the women's pairs final, and it was only when Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, at his side since the summer of 1990, stood up out of their boat and walked to the centre of the stage that the world of rowing acknowledged the final bow of one of its few legends.

Rowing requires a rare combination of strength and endurance. Redgrave was born strong and from 16 years old he was bigger than most of those around him. In the next 18 years he proved endurance beyond anyone else in his sport and the equal of only three others in Olympic history.

Redgrave's triumph is a Corinthian moment in an Olympic movement becoming less an arena of sport and more a branch of television entertainment. He has toiled for these years with no state support, for most of the time entirely dependent on his family, who are not rich, and on small grants from the Sports Aid Foundation, a British charity.

On Saturday Redgrave and Pinsent held off the Australians David Weightman and Robert Scott to retain their coxless pairs crown. It made Redgrave only the fourth man in Olympic history to win four successive gold medals and the first rower to do so.

"I'm just proud to have been involved with a moment of history for Steve," Jurgen Grobler, the pair's German coach, said. "When the ceremony finished Steve came up to me and said 'you're the greatest'. I just said 'No, you're the greatest'. There's nothing better you can hear from any sportsman to a coach but it shows the sort of man he is. He doesn't compare with anybody else."

That was certainly the view of the rowing team manager, David Tanner, who admitted that Redgrave's departure - "if anybody sees me near a boat again they should shoot me" - was a sad day for British rowing.

"What he has achieved has been through sheer hard work, determination and self-discipline, all the right qualities you need in an ideal Olympic athlete.

"I don't go along with the view that rowing is a sport for the privileged minority and Steve has shown it doesn't have to be. He's just an ordinary guy who's achieved the summit."

The moment of history, which saw Redgrave join the American discus thrower Al Oerter, the Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrom and the Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich in the pantheon of Olympic greats did look in doubt at times.

After a disappointing week, Redgrave and Pinsent, unbeaten since Barcelona four years ago, made their best start of the competition. By half-way they were a length and three quarters clear and cruising to victory.

But the Australians began to close and although the British pair came home in a time 20 seconds better than they had all week to secure Britain's first gold of the Games it looked a tight run thing with the Aussies only half a length behind.

"If we're going to be beaten by anybody you don't mind it being Steve," Scott said. "He is an absolute legend in rowing"

Redgrave himself does not know what the future will bring and he remained modest about his phenomenal achievement.

"I know I've got more Olympic medals than any other British athlete, but there are a lot of athletes throughout the world who have won many more than I have," he said. "Saying that, we set out what we wanted to do, spent four years aiming it achieve it and all that hard work now seems worthwhile. Now I've got to work out what I'm going to do next."

Pinsent, too, is considering his future: "The last couple of days I was saying to myself you're hating this and telling myself I never want to do this again or go through this pressure," he said.

"I would really love to carry on but it is not an easy decision. It is not a sport where you can easily get sponsorship and all our contracts run out today, as well as finding who to row with. It will be like chasing a ghost in some ways.

"Steve has been hard work to work with, but hard work in the right direction. A very good training partner, a real motivator and it showed at the times it had to be done. In a pair it has to come down to a really good partnership."

And Redgrave paid his own tribute to Pinsent: "He is the best partner I've had and I've had some outstanding partners in my career."

Steve Redgrave fact file

1962: Born Marlow, 23 March.

1979: First international honours at junior world championships.

1980: Runner-up in world junior double sculls.

1981: Eighth on senior world championship debut in quad sculls.

1983: Wins Diamond Sculls at Henley.

1984: Strokes British coxed four to gold medal at Los Angeles Olympics.

1985: Wins Diamond Sculls and first of five consecutive Wingfield Sculls.

1986: Teams up with Andy Holmes and wins coxed pairs at world championships. Becomes first rower to win three gold medals at a Commonwealth Games when he wins singles sculls, coxless pairs with Holmes, and coxed fours.

1987: Goes for double of coxless pairs and coxed pairs with Holmes at the world championships, but has to settle for gold in coxless and silver in coxed.

1988: Attempting same double in Seoul Olympics, he and Holmes again strike gold in coxless, but finish third in coxed. Partnership with Holmes is dissolved.

1989: Member of four-man crew who win British Bobsleigh Championship and qualifies for final trials for British team. Returns to rowing and joins up with Simon Berrisford, wins silver in coxless pairs at World Championships.

1990: Berrisford injures back and quits racing. Redgrave teams up with Matthew Pinsent and wins bronze in coxless pairs.

1991: Wins first of five consecutive world coxless pairs titles with Pinsent.

1992: Becomes first Briton for 72 years to win three Olympic golds in a row.

1996: Announces he is to retire after winning fourth Olympic gold in Atlanta.