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Steve Redgrave: Sprinkling gold dust

Steve Redgrave relives his glorious Olympic moments with Robin Scott-Elliot, but is less impressed by the latest twist in the drugs war

Sir Steve Redgrave is sitting on a plastic chair in a large windowless room in the depths of the Olympic Stadium. The plan had been for us to take a seat up in the stands, with a view of the arena that will host the greatest show on earth in 12 weeks' time, and talk about the event that has made him a British sporting great, but the great British weather put paid to that.

It's too cold, in May; in fact, it's cold and dreary enough to prompt an Australian journalist to ask Sebastian Coe next door whether he regrets not providing more cover for spectators at the outdoor venues. The problem with moving indoors is that everyone wants a piece of Redgrave. Even Coe nips through to shake hands and say hello. Sporting icons tend to be magnetic.

It is 28 years since Redgrave, in the company of four others, sped across Lake Casitas in Ventura County, California, the stage for the rowing at the Los Angeles Games, to earn a first Olympic gold. It's a dozen years since he crossed the waters of Penrith Lakes, a few miles outside Sydney, in the company of three others (no cox this time), to claim gold No 5 and prompt Matthew Pinsent to rock the boat with a joyous, giant bear hug for his long-time sporting partner. "I could talk you through, stroke by stroke, that first gold in 1984," says Redgrave. "The memories are very clear, although the first and last are clearer than the three in between."

We will, of course, come back to that but there is a more immediate subject on which Redgrave has equally clear views. Over the last couple of weeks the Redgrave name has been used almost as a shield by the British Olympic Association in defence of its doomed fight to maintain the controversial by-law that bars any athlete who has failed a dope test from competing in the Games. Colin Moynihan, chairman of the BOA, has raised at every opportunity Redgrave's long-held view that a two-year ban is little more than a "slap on the wrists". Does he believe Moynihan and the BOA's stubborn stance against the World Anti-Doping Agency was the right thing to do?

"Yes I do. It's very harsh to have a lifetime ban as the BOA has, but we have very few positive tests in this country and that is one of the reasons. If you gamble with taking drugs you know you're gambling with having a life ban.

"Wada, I believe, got it wrong. How can you have an athlete who has a positive drugs test and is allowed to compete in the next Olympics? That's not fair. What's he lost?"

The athlete in question is LaShawn Merritt, the US 400 metres gold medallist in Beijing, who failed a dope test in 2010. He successfully challenged the International Olympic Committee's one Games ban, which led directly to the BOA case.

"What sort of example does that set?" Redgrave asks. "You have got to have something to take you out of that next Olympic cycle. A two-year ban is not enough. Four years is acceptable."

He is still debating the issue as we leave the room at the end of the interview, heading for the chilly outdoors to have his picture taken. He lays out the case for a life ban and then wonders how that can be balanced with the need to offer a second chance.

Redgrave had six chances of Olympic gold (there was also a bronze in 1988). The last, at the 2000 Games, was snatched by half a second, through one final, desperate surge of Herculean effort. The feat of winning five golds in five consecutive Games in a sport that demands immense physicality cannot be overstated. As part of the build-up to the London Games, all British Olympians, some 2,400, were asked to choose their greatest. Redgrave polled 58 per cent. Next was Daley Thompson on 13. Coe came third with 4 per cent.

But Redgrave's contribution to British Olympic history, like Coe's, did not end at the start of this century. There is another striking image of Redgrave. It came in a convention hall in Singapore on 6 July, 2005. Clad in a light brown suit, Redgrave is hugging David Beckham, who is clothed in a similar outfit. It was the uniform of the London bid team that dramatically bettered Paris, winning by four votes out of 104. Denise Lewis leapt around, Redgrave and Beckham embraced. Small margins favoured Britain's ultimate Olympic winner one more time.

Redgrave was involved in the bid from the early stages, making sure the Games would be centred on athletes – planned by the athletes for the athletes. It is, according to Redgrave, a simple formula: "The Games has to be geared up for the athletes because if it's geared up for them to have a great time, it's geared up for the spectators to see that and if they see that, the IOC and the media see that and it all falls into place – you get a great Games."

Athletes have been intimately involved in the planning of the venues. Redgrave spent the early days of the bid poring over plans for the park. "The surroundings matter more than you think [for the athletes]," he says. "The attention to detail matters."

This is his first trip to the Olympic Park in 18 months and first time inside the stadium in two years. "I'm very excited about coming here," he says. "Having seen all the sketches at the beginning, actually seeing it now is amazing. Beijing had some pretty iconic stadia and I didn't think we would be able to match that. But I think we have. We're further advanced, more mature than other Games that I've been to, certainly Athens, where it was almost lift the carpet up and sweep everything under."

Athens was the first Games of the rest of his life. For many athletes who have reached the top, it is a long way down afterwards. Redgrave was 38 when that fifth gold was placed around his neck but he has found ways of replacing the sporting high. In 2006 he ran the London Marathon and in doing so raised £1.8m for his foundation, a record sum for the event. There was the 2012 bid and now he helps mentor young athletes and push for sport to make changes to people's lives, much as it made a difference to a builder's son who left Marlow Comprehensive at the age of 16.

"You've got to be able to use an icon like the Olympic Games to make social change. I don't think we've made enough of that," says Redgrave.

Olympic Games have historically not resulted in a spike in sporting participation in the host nation. Too often what comes next has been forgotten until too late and Redgrave believes that fault lies in part with the International Olympic Committee and how it expects a Games to be set up and run. One company builds the Games, then another takes over for the event.

Redgrave is the bookmakers' favourite to light the Olympic flame on opening night. It is not a role he craves. Nevertheless, when it comes to medals on the table, it's impossible for a Briton to beat the famous five. Does he have a favourite? The youthful joy of No 1, the historic achievement of No 5, beating a German called Colin (von Ettingshausen) for No 3?

He shrugs. "I'm a father of three, if I was asked which was my favourite child... They're different, they all have their own personality. That's what the Olympics is like. Five Games I competed at and five Games I won at; they've got their individual personalities.

"It's not just about that final day, not just about that final race, not about that moment of standing on the rostrum having an Olympic gold medal put around your neck, it's the four years of hard graft, the highs and lows that build those personalities."

But push him and he does have a favourite. "If I'm really twisted to pick one, it's got to be the first. Because for the first one you have this dream to become an Olympic champion and it becomes reality. Once you've done it once, you think, 'Why can't I do it again?' If you are favourite and you believe you can win, you can only go out and equal your own expectations. You can't better it and that's quite hard to deal with."

Sir Steve Redgrave is a Team Visa Ambassador. Team Visa is providing funding, support and advice to 20 athletes across Europe on their journey to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.