Men of Iron Set Out on the Rest of Their Lives

STEVE REDGRAVE, who on Saturday skewered his everlasting fame to the honors board, will today meet the 64-year-old Al Oerter from Babylon, New Jersey, the former United States discus-thrower, ‘president’ of the immortals and the first of four men to win gold medals at four successive Olympics.

The photo-call handshake has been arranged by Adidas, which sponsored Oerter and Redgrave. Resonant Olympic romance is far more agreeably potent and easy to organize, would you not say, when two athletes happen to wear the same shoes? Had they not, would they have met?But there can be not a jot of cynicism about Redgrave’s glorious achievement on Saturday when he and Matthew Pinsent, at 26 the junior partner by eight years, rowed in the union and near-perfect fusion to retain their coxless pairs title. As soon as it was done – and the Australians had been throttled into second place – the Englishmen announced that their marriage was over.

The odd couple – the dyslexic son of a carpenter and, in ancient rowing snobbism, ‘the tradesman’, and the articulate Eton and Oxford son of a wealthy churchman – would be partners no more.

Pinsent acknowledged their win with his broad, jag-toothed grin, his arms raised like the conquering emperor. Redgrave has been unemotional for 16 years; now, at the crowning pinnacle of his historic fame, the older man swayed and sagged in the tiny craft, gulped and reached in near collapse.

From the bank, the pair’s expressions suggested that Redgrave was done for, spent and that the younger man had carried them through the last few meters as the Australians attacked again. Those expressions told a whopping lie; Redgrave and Pinsent always had it in the bag.

Much later, when the churned water was stilted and flat, Pinsent still displayed his smile and his golden prize hung at his chest for all to see. Redgrave’s medal stayed hidden in his pocket. In the crook of his left arm – the palm of the hand blotched in blistered callouses – he carried his baby daughter.

‘Collapse? No way,’ said Redgrave. ‘My creed is to cross that line before anyone else and never to show a sign of tiredness to opponents. It has been my aim for 16 years to let them be heaving and gasping as they look at me. But now I knew it was all over, forever, so who gave a toss if at last, I showed my true emotions, physical and mental?

‘I might have looked distraught but the utter relief that it was all over was stupendous. In that moment I had not only slung off my own tensions but also taken all the pressures from my family. Retire from rowing? I don’t want to get away from the sport but I’m happy to get away from the commitment to the sport.

‘We had a plan today, of course, we did. We leaped from the blocks and it was amazing the Australians did not respond. They just didn’t draw any sting from us. They allowed us the same pace through the third 500 as they had the second. Did they think they could beat us at the end? No way. Even before the last 350 meters, we knew we’d won and the Australians knew we’d won.

‘Exciting? We’ve just done what everyone expected us to do. Now, coming up is a great big hole of emptiness. That’s it, it’s over. What the hell do I do now?

‘If rowing was commercial I have no doubt I would have walked away after a couple of wins and then gone out and enjoyed spending the millions I had made. But I’m not on track or field.

‘What will I miss most? Should I say the actual racing? Not if I have to repeat ever again the stress and incredible tension of the last few hours. Press me, and I suppose I’ll miss being in harmony with a boat and moving it as fast as it can go. But the intensity of training for competition has made for a nightmare.

‘So thank God it’s all over. And to think I signed off forever after the race by accidentally using the F-word when the BBC was on the air. That’s some sort of epitaph as I begin the first day of the rest of my life.’

When it was Pinsent’s turn to speak he said: ‘I knew I’d feel like this. First, ‘Wow, we’ve done it!’ and then you hit empty space. So I’m not yet on any stable emotional platform to decide anything about rowing except that Steve and I are through. Winning a gold medal is not the ecstatic cloud-nine paradise you guys say it is. A buzz, sure, but this bit of glitter around your neck puts you at once into a vacuum, a limbo of withdrawal, and you look at it and think, ‘Okay, after all, the years’ work I’ve got it – but what about the rest of real life?’

‘We’ve both committed so much we desperately need a direction outside sport. Steve might never find anything like rowing again, so he will feel it most. He’s got a family and he’s sacrificed so much more. Steve and I will always be the best of friends. Not that friendship is an ingredient which makes any boat go faster. Friendship is when we can piss each other off but never hold a grudge. As any race approaches, we can both be impossible. I take a vow of silence and don’t eat, Steve grumpy and growls. But we both know it’s mutually beneficial.

‘This has been the toughest racing week of my life. To hear as soon as we woke up that the bomb had gone off was terrible but we had to keep concentrating. In the heats, we weren’t quite on the job but in the semi, we posted sluggish times so as to confuse the Australians. It worked, didn’t it?

‘As stroke this year I have had much more of an input into the racing character of the boat. I’m in charge of the rhythm but if something is wrong Steve can tinker with it, or change it. But if I do my job well he never says much. He said very little today, just tiny calls like ‘That’s good, keep going’.

‘Our ability, I suppose, has been to concentrate together on a single goal. We did it again today and when the Aussies didn’t dare come with us from the first we knew they would never get past.’

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