It was with something of a golden glow that Sir Clive Woodward stepped up to the lectern in one of the pavilions on the Olympic Green complex. “It's a very historic day,” he said. “We've won our first gold medal in women's swimming for 48 years.”
Clad in a Team GB polo shirt, the good sporting knight might have puffed out his chest with even greater pride had he been aware that the new golden girl of British swimming, Rebecca Adlington, had identified the British Olympic Association's director of elite performance as a major inspiration behind her momentous 400m freestyle victory earlier in the day. Citing a Churchillian eve-of-Games Woodward address to the swim squad, she said: “After hearing him speak, you felt like you could do anything.”
It was only when Woodward had finished another speech - sharing the stage with Michael Johnson at a press conference about specialist vision coaching - that Adlington's tribute was relayed to him. “Oh, it's nice of her to say that,” he responded, with genuine gratitude.
For the whole of his coaching life, it would seem, the one-time England and British Lions rugby union centre has been struggling for true acceptance. Even when he was busy guiding Martin Johnson and Co down the road to World Cup glory, he had to swim against a tide of resistance. Regarded as something of a maverick in his playing days, he was considered to be even more of one when he worked his way up the coaching ladder using training methods drawn from right across the sporting spectrum and from the business world too.
It was not just the lingering old fart fraternity within the Rugby Football Union who raised eyes heavenward when he turned up for a squad training session in 2000 accompanied by a woman described as a 'visual skills coach,' former South African hockey player Sherylle Calder. “There was a lot of skepticism from the players,” Woodward recalled yesterday. “We made them put a patch over one eye and they were running into one another. It was quite dangerous, but the players soon realized how important vision coaching was.”
It is Woodward's broader vision in the all-encompassing BOA role he assumed in September 2006, after his ill-fated foray into football with Southampton, that has promoted head scratching of late. A survey after his first year in the job found that that 18 of the 35 Olympic sports in Britain considered he had made no impact. Since then, he has launched an Elite Performance Service, assembling a team of specialist coaches - including four former members of his England rugby backroom team (Calder among them) - to assist gold medal prospects in the run up to the London Olympics of 2012. Some of the boxers, badminton players and judo fighters competing for Britain in the 2008 Games have already been through the Woodward finishing school.
“We won the Rugby World Cup through a great team of people and now we're taking it to the next level with the BOA,” he said. Having seen the scale of the home system churning out gold medals in Beijing, though, is he not somewhat daunted by the prospect of taking on the mighty Chinese machine in London four years from now?
“No, I'm not,” Woodward maintained. “I've got a huge respect for what they've done. We've just got to do it a little bit differently. We've got a smaller population. You've got to look at your own system and say, 'We can take on even a big country like China - and Russia and America - and still win. I don't think we're going to match them at the top end, but in certain sports there's no reason why we can't.”