Redgrave inspira nova geração de olimpicos

"We have," he contends "never had such a strong team going into the Olympics." Indeed, nothing is more likely to irritate Redgrave than someone harking back to an age that was supposedly, well, golden.

"There was never a golden era. In Barcelona we had five golds – not as many as people think." For rowing, he predicts: "It won't be as good as the World Championships, but we'll have a very good Olympics. We have three extremely strong chances of gold: the lightweight men's doubles, the women's quad, and, even though they haven't had a brilliant build-up, the men's coxless four. There are several other medal possibilities."

Redgrave famously vowed that if he ever clambered back into a boat someone should shoot him, but he sheepishly admits that he has taken up veteran racing with team-mates from the 1980 Olympics. "I was the youngest, so they thought I'd be really fit and strong," he jokes. "Unfortunately, I think I surprised them."

He is a friendly and talkative interviewee these days; gone is the intimidating steeliness I remember finding in his Olympic days. But his is no gentle, bucolic retirement. He talks about spending more time with his family, but has actually just transferred much of his athletic drive to new projects, such as frantically raising £5 million for charity.

"I see myself as slobbing around, but in truth I'm always active," he says. "My biggest challenge is to keep my mouth shut, like when I said I'd raise £5 million for children. I'd like to see more of my family and do more skiing. But while I like the idea of slouching watching TV, I don't think I'd really enjoy it."

He has also been filming a revival of Superstars, that iconic Seventies show transformed into a team event. Redgrave captained a team competing against one led by Roger Black, though shoulder ailments prompted his doctor to issue him a list of banned events. Typically, he carried on regardless. "I'd been forbidden from doing dips but I thought, 'Oh, I'll give it a go'. I only managed 20, which was awful compared to everyone else, and then – because they film back to back – they asked me to do it again for the next episode, and I did even worse."

Just like in the playground, captains pick from the assembled sportsmen and women. An early choice for Redgrave was former England batsman Graham Thorpe, putting off until last Lee Sharpe, footballer turned lad about town. "He was actually very good," Redgrave says, loyally.

His attention now turns to Beijing, where he will commentate for the BBC and act as a mentor to our Paralympians. With Dwain Chambers dominating headlines, conversation turns to drugs. Redgrave supports longer bans, but he is philosophical. "Cheating was a problem even in the ancient games. If you go to Olympia you'll see busts of champions. If they were later found to have cheated, their busts were smashed. Unfortunately, it's human nature to gain an advantage.

"People go to high altitude to increase red blood cells, but it's banned to take your blood out and put it back. So it can be a thin line. We probably won't ever win against drugs, but we can't give up the fight. I actually like the publicity surrounding drug cases as it sends the message that we aren't accepting cheats, even if it does hurt that sport for a while."

As for rowing, Redgrave says Stasi files turned up no evidence of senior East German competitors abusing drugs, though some juniors might have been. However, he adds: "Just as sport is advancing, so is the science of drugs. There will always be new ways to cheat." He thinks rowing's policy of banning entire federations should be adopted by other sports.

As a board member of the 2012 bid, how does he feel that London's preparations are progressing? "All elements seem well ahead of schedule," he says. "We even have major sponsorship, which has never been agreed so early before. Sure, things can still go wrong and there's bound to be trauma with building, but I'm confident it's going to be good. I can't wait, even though I'll be 50."

The day we meet, a javelin throw from the Olympic village in London's East End, Redgrave is not only meeting the Paralympians from the Team Visa Monitoring Programme, he is patiently teaching children to use rowing machines. How much will the London Olympics increase participation? "There's no question hosting a major tournament inspires children. Manchester got our only velodrome, which was used in the Commonwealth Games, and our track cycling team is now second to none."

As for the Paralympians, who will have his mobile number to call at any time during the Games, he finds them increasingly inspirational. "Take someone like John McFall," Redgrave says, "he's a really interesting guy. He was on holiday riding a motorbike and ended up having his leg amputated from the knee down. That inspired him to get into sport and now he's competing in the Olympics."

A few Brits will be quietly thinking, "If only Redgrave were doing the same ..."

How good was he? Well...

Olympic Games
1984 Coxed four
1988 Coxless pair
1992 Coxless pair
1996 Coxless pair
2000 Coxless four

1988 Coxed pair

World Championships
Gold: 1986, 1987, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999

Commonwealth Games
1986: Three golds

Four seasons unbeaten from 1993-96.
Knighted in 2001 New Year Honours List.


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