THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Redgrave's compulsion to succeed

Steve Redgrave is driven on by the prospect of becoming the Olympics' most successful rower of all time by winning a fourth gold medal in Atlanta this year. Ian Stafford caught up with him during a rare break in training
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Steve Redgrave didn't quite know what to do with himself. His partner, Matthew Pinsent, was out there on the Thames by himself, rowing hard against the wind and the currents, while Redgrave sat alone in the warmth of the Leander Club in Henley nursing an upset stomach.

It was the first day of training he had missed since the season began back in August last year and it was clear that the man poised to win an incredible fourth Olympic gold medal was racked with a rare mixture of emotions - guilt, because Pinsent was doing the work, and because one day off in Redgrave's preparations for Atlanta is one day too much, but also relief, because he was enjoying the bonus of avoiding his rapidly growing pet hate of training.

"Whenever I train I wish I was ill to get out of it," he said, making the teas as a rather less physical substitute to what he should have been doing. "Then again, when I'm ill, I wish I was out there training. It's always been like that. I feel that I'm cheating Matthew, and I'm cheating myself because I'm not pushing him to the boundaries."

The boundary has been Redgrave's domain ever since he won his first gold medal back in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as part of the coxed fours team. Since then he has built up the most remarkable collection of rowing feats and titles which, at least in my book, may not make him the most well-known sportsperson in the country, but certainly the greatest current achiever.

Golds followed in 1988, with Andrew Holmes, and in 1992 with Pinsent, which means that 34-year-old Redgrave now has an unprecedented fourth consecutive gold medal well within his sights. Some sports people do not care much for records, but Redgrave knows exactly what lies in store for him.

"Winning in Atlanta will make me the first rower in Olympic history to ever win four gold medals," he said. What about in sport? "It would make me the only guy to ever win four consecutive gold medals in different Olympics. There was a water polo player back in the 1920s who won four, but they were in three Games." Anything else? "Well, it would also make me the top British medal winner of all time, because of that silly little bronze."

The "silly little bronze" medal is a reference to the third place he and Holmes secured in the 1988 coxed pairs final in Seoul, the morning after the couple had taken the coxless pairs title. It was asking a lot from the pair to win two out of two in such short time, but try telling that to Redgrave when he shows you the presentation box containing all his medals.

"The bronze doesn't deserve to be in the same box, does it?" he asks. I don't know, I mean it's not exactly bad, is it? "Coming second would have been bad enough, but third." His voice wavers off for a moment as he contemplates such a thought, before perking up again with a couple of stories.

"I went to a dinner the other night and was asked to show everyone the box. They all kept asking me why one of the medals was a different colour to the rest. Worse still, I went to a dinner in Atlanta last September where the box was handed around all the guests. When it was finally returned, the bronze medal was missing."

Redgrave leans forward to emphasise his incredulity. "Somebody actually took it out of the box and put it into their pocket," he added. "I couldn't believe it for two reasons. I've asked to present my medal box all over the world in the last 12 years, and nobody's ever nicked one before. Yet, when somebody finally does, they choose the bronze medal, when there were three golds sitting next to it."

He shakes his head in disbelief before adding: "Perhaps he was colour- blind." So what happened? "Oh well, three days later the bronze was handed back to the embassy and they returned it to me. Whoever took it obviously shared my views about winning a bronze medal."

Nobody seriously believes Redgrave will be returning home from Atlanta with a bronze medal. Certainly not Redgrave, who has the day of the final etched on his mind. "July 27, on a Saturday morning, at 10am," he tells you. "That's what it's all about. That's why I'm down here at the Thames every day, from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon training. I hate it, but I have to do it, and the racing, and the winning just about makes up for the hardship of training."

He talks as if the past has not taken place. "It's my only Olympics, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, I've got three gold medals at home [notice no mention of the bronze], and one day I might be able to look back and think that's good, but right now this is the only race that matters."

On the face of it you would think that these last four years, since his triumph with Pinsent in Barcelona, would have been incredibly hard for Redgrave. In sporting terms, he is fast turning into a veteran, who has already won everything there is to win in rowing, and who loathes training in one of the most gruelling sports in existence.

"Actually it's been a little easier this time," he contradicts. "You see, in 1984 I knew I'd go on to the Seoul Olympics, but there didn't seem much point in carrying on after that. I very nearly quit in 1988."

Really? "Yes, it's true. I saw Seoul as being my Olympics, and saw nothing onwards. But when it dawned on me that I could go on to Barcelona, there was a real reason to quit in 1988. I found it hard to motivate myself, though, because winning in 1992 would make me one of seven rowers in history which was no big deal to me.

"This time I could become one of one, and that means a lot. After Barcelona I knew I wanted to carry on, for that reason, and also because Matthew and I were an established team."

True, even if Pinsent finds that his own impressive achievements pale into insignificance compared to his partner's. "Matthew's always been overshadowed by me. When he was going for his first gold medal, I was looking for my third. Now he's looking to defend our title, which I'm hoping to break all records with a fourth gold.

"But he'll have his chance. He might even go on and emulate, or even beat, whatever I finally end up with. I get the feeling Matthew will want to carry on without me and make his own name. It will be interesting to see what happens, especially as he hasn't experienced any real failure."

Failure? What do you call losing the Boat Race in 1993, then, when the high-profile Pinsent was supposed to maintain Oxford's winning streak, but blew it?

"Oh yes, that's true, and it was a Boat Race he should have won," Redgrave agrees. "But he still doesn't really know what it's like to lose, except for a Mickey Mouse event like the Boat Race. He's hardly ever been off the rostrum."

Hearing all this makes you rack your brain. Steve Redgrave is talking about a subject which is surely alien to him. Look at his record. Apart from his Olympic medals, this is a sportsman who has collected five different world titles and three Commonwealth gold medals, and has won on 15 occasions at Henley. The word failure is surely not in the Redgrave dictionary.

"That's what people forget," he says. "I've had my times as a loser in the sport, especially before the 1984 Olympics, and a couple of times since in the World Championships. I've competed in 19 major events, and won nine of them. If I win the gold in Atlanta, it will give me a 50 per cent record, that's all."

"That's all" I find myself almost screaming at him. Then he explains himself. "Do you know, I was once eliminated from a race in the early 1980s for not being fast enough. I was actually eliminated. I've made sure to maintain that particular memory."

But that was years ago. "Doesn't seem that long ago to me," he replies. "The point is that it's given me the mental hardness you need to keep on winning at this level. I can accept losing, but not when I feel I could've won. That's why I put myself into positions where it simply won't happen."

That last statement was delivered with total conviction. No arguments required there, thank you very much. It is this mentality which has driven him so far, and driven his partners to near suicide, until they, too, collect their medals and realise why they had just been living in purgatory.

"I've never really seen myself as a slave-driver, although I know others have sometimes called me it," he responds. "I simply see it that I want to be the Olympic champion and so I've got to carry out all the required work. It's just got to be done. I make sure I row with people who have the same drive as I do, and who want to win as much."

What will a man with such a need to win possibly do with himself when it is finally all over? Redgrave has tried to convince people that he will be hanging up the oars after Atlanta. He's sick of the training, he's getting too old, and he's done enough.

Earlier in our conversation he referred to his task this time being easier because he knew it would be the end. I raised an eyebrow, prompting him to laugh and look down to the floor.

Now he admits that his retirement is by no means certain. "This," he says, looking around the clubhouse, and out to the Thames, "has been my way of life. It's going to be very hard to walk away from it.

"It's just the training's getting harder all the time for me, and I don't want to go through another four years of it. Then again, I'll be only 38 in Sydney, and I'm confident that I would still be able to race at the very highest level."

Sydney? We are talking about the 2000 Games here. "I definitely want to go out at the top, but if I stop now, while still at the top, I won't know if I could have stayed the best for longer. People suggest I could coach, but if I'm going to spend all those hours beside the river, with equal commitment and motivation, I may as well carry on rowing."

He pauses, his brow now showing deep furrows. It is not a subject he wants to dwell on, and it clear that the reason why is because his dilemma is causing him some concern. Finally, there is an admission.

"The future without rowing is not a time I'm looking forward to. I'd like to quit, but I can't say I'm going to. You see, knowing that I want to give up is different to actually being able to do it."

You can almost see Redgrave, can't you, on July 27 in Atlanta? There he is, we all hope, with a gold medal hanging around his neck. He and Pinsent have won the title with relative ease, he's broken all records, and he feels good. Standing, on the rostrum, as the Union Jack flutters in the breeze, he considers an alternative life, and then realises how good and fit he still feels.

Redgrave read my thoughts at this point. "Look, if I stay on, it will be to win," he states. "I won't be doing if for the enjoyment side, believe me. It will be to win, as it always has been."

I believe you, Steve, I really do. But just who are you trying to convince?