Tim fosters golden spirit of Sydney

Rowing: Champion turned coach draws strength from glories past and predicts singular honour for troubled four

For Tim Foster, read Private Pike. The character whose self-inflicted hand- laceration (at a party) and lumbar-spine strain (caused, in part, by jarring it with a "spectacular diving catch" playing cricket at altitude camp) in the prelude to Sydney, placed his own Olympic ambitions in severe jeopardy. Never mind the minor matter of Steve Redgrave's fifth gold. "Stupid boy", Captain Mainwaring's contemptuous catchword in Dad's Army, would have been muttered under the breath of more than one of his crewmates in 1999.

Yet Foster is a name which has become synonymous with the power of faith: that out of the most cruel form of adversity can emerge Olympic heroics.

It explains why the gold medal-winning oarsman-turned-coach believes that Britain's coxless four can prevail at Athens, despite a season of turmoil, just as Redgrave's stirring quartet did in 2000. "Hopefully, they can draw strength from what we achieved," says Foster. "If you looked at our run-up to Sydney, if you didn't know the result, you wouldn't necessarily have said that we were going to win. What we did have was belief."

But will that prove sufficient? The 2004 quartet is not only a hybrid of a disillusioned pair and half of an original coxless four, but alterations in crew personnel, provoked both by injury - most crucially to Alex Partridge, who suffered a collapsed lung and has been replaced by that ever-willing substitute, Ed Coode - and chief coach Jürgen Grobler's selection policy, have conspired to punctuate the preparation for Athens with constant uncertainty.

Despite blips, both in performances and in the problems of individual personnel, the Sydney four still succeeded in casting fear among opponents. The Athens four are blessed with none of that psychological advantage. And, perhaps most crucially, there is no Redgrave, notwithstanding his debilitating illnesses, this time around. "They'd love to have Steve Redgrave in there," says Foster. "One of Steve's great strengths was that he was a natural leader. Probably, this four at the moment don't have that. Matthew's got to step up and take that role and lead by example. That'll be a real test of his character. It's not necessarily something that he does naturally. He's always had Steve there for him."

Foster, who has surveyed the four at close quarters this week, having been asked by Grobler to assist with the coaching of the British eight at Silvretta, high in the Alps, adds: "They can win, if they row to the best of their potential. It's still within their grasp. There's still fantastic power on board. Matthew, James [Cracknell] and Steve Williams are among the strongest rowers in the world. However, they do go into the racing not being favourites, which is a strange situation for Matthew."

Pinsent often required Redgrave's motivational powers to produce his optimum. Now the loss of that influence has appeared significant. "Matthew is someone who is fantastically talented, but who in the last couple of years hasn't been quite fulfilling that potential in terms of his technique, the way he puts that power into moving the boat," says Foster. "The month ahead will really test Matthew. Previously he's gone into the Olympics merely having to give more of the same. This time, he needs to improve."

It was less than a year ago that two became four after Pinsent and Cracknell failed at the world championships in Milan. It was a devastating moment, sufficient to convince Grobler to act brutally. Rick Dunn and Tony Garbett were ejected, amid understandable acrimony, from the four to make way for them in a boat which was considered to have an "easier" golden opportunity. Redgrave has never approved of that move.

Foster, who has been coaching the University of London crews, and during Henley Royal Regatta was actually persuaded to come out of retirement briefly, opines: "I'd say they've not cured the problem by changing the boat. The challenge was there to beat the Croatians, the Australians, and the Italians. The thinking was that they could avoid the challenge by going from the pair to the four. What they discovered was that the challenge was as great in the four as it had been in the pair. With the benefit of hindsight, they probably wouldn't have made the change because they've still the same problems."

Like haute cuisine, rowing is not necessarily about combining the most powerful ingredients, but about determining the best blend. Foster believes that the four may have achieved that by default. "What we had in Sydney was a mix of strength and technique. Hopefully now, by putting Ed in, you've got one of the more skilled people in there. I'd not wish it on Alex [whom he has coached], but it's possible that the four they've ended up with is better than the one first selected. While Alex is much more dynamic in his style, the skill Ed brings is one of the things the four do need."

There has been surprise that Foster, acknowledged as the most proficient oarsman in the Sydney four, and a fine "reader of the game", has not been utilised before to a greater degree by the Amateur Rowing Association. The original intention of fast-tracking the oarsman forced to retire because of that spine injury after 2000 on to their coaching scheme has been dispiritingly slow, though it has offered him the opportunity to assist in the writing of a candid and frequently irreverent review of the events leading up to the coxless four's triumph at Sydney*. Now Sport England have offered him one of 10 coaching scholarships. The scheme is designed to improve the quality of sports coaching here, and reduce the reliance on foreign coaches.

First, though, he will be out in Athens, exhorting the present-day counterparts of the 2000 icons to emulate their success. "You just don't know," he says. "The crew do have fantastic potential. They could come back with a gold medal. Conversely, if it doesn't quite fire, they could be coming back without a medal at all."

'Four Men in a Boat' by Rory Ross with Tim Foster (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99)

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