The term ‘dynasty’ is seldom more appropriate than when applied to the career and legacy of Sir Steve Redgrave. A dominant athlete throughout his competitive life, Redgrave was and is the inspirational vanguard of British rowing. While most professional athletes manage to maintain their peak performance for a few years at best, consecutive – and often resounding – successes between 1984 and 2000 ensured his place within an elite and incredibly select sporting pantheon.
Despite winning a colossal nine World Championship golds, it was Redgrave’s Olympic victories which set his name in stone. Acquiring a gold medal in each of the five Olympics he participated in, as well as a bronze in 1988, meant that for a time he would enjoy the honour of being Britain’s greatest ever Olympian. Chris Hoy recently became the first British athlete successful enough to surpass his record, with his stoic performances in the London 2012 games tallying his record at 6 golds and a silver.
But what makes Redgrave’s Olympic achievements all the more impressive is the ages at which he competed. In his inaugural games, in 1984, he was only twenty-two. In his final games he was an ancient thirty-eight. The fact that most rowers in the coxless pairs and fours hit their prime form around the age of thirty makes his consistency astounding.
However, Sir Steve’s physical attributes only fought half the battle behind the oars. Generally rowing in a team of two or four over a sixteen year period meant Redgrave was forced to change and adapt his style and performances to suit newcomers who had been introduced to the team, many of which didn’t possess the confidence Redgrave had acquired from years of success. But as he and his teammates continued to progress from victory to victory, it seemed the simple belief that Redgrave exuded was driving his partners toward an aerial level of performance.
Richard Budgett lauded the instant impact Redgrave had on their Olympic boat in 1984, commenting, “When he came into our boat, he brought so much power and commitment… He quickened us so much.” By the time the Sydney 2000 Olympics came round Redgrave wasn’t just a renowned oarsman, he was a talisman – the undefeated supreme oarsman.
Coincidentally, Redgrave’s final Olympic triumph is remembered by many as his greatest. Although the GB boat led from the start, they had to fend off constant pressure from Australia and a near devastating burst of intensity from the Italian boat.
Factors prior to the race contributed to the hype surrounding what was widely predicted to be Redgrave’s last hurrah, perhaps elevating the performance in spectators’ minds. For example, after claiming Britain’s first gold of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics alongside Matthew Pinsent, Redgrave famously emphasised his longing to be free from the sport to which he had devoted his life with the line, “If you ever catch me near a boat again, shoot me!”
Both his supporters and opponents acknowledged that he more than anyone deserved to rest on his laurels. However he soon reversed his decision, realising that he “didn’t want to be sitting on the bank, or watching the guys on TV and thinking ‘I could be doing that’”. Many fans were nonplussed – why not retire on top? He would be even older by the time the Sydney games began.
Perhaps what truly immortalised the Sydney race was Redgrave’s discovery beforehand that he was diabetic. Initially believing his career to be over, the quiet Olympian from Marlow desperately sought out medical experts for advice. He was subsequently provided with a balanced routine and medicine that enabled concentrated training without compromising a healthy diet. His ultimate victory serves as an inspiration to diabetics worldwide. Many still write to him for advice and support.
From 2000 onwards, Redgrave has remained proactive in his retirement. Awarded a knighthood in the 2001 New Year’s Honours list, the charity worker, motivational speaker and author has become a legend amongst rowers and fans. His effect on British rowing is phenomenal – when Redgrave first entered the Olympics, Britain rejoiced if their rowers claimed a single medal. Since Redgrave retired Team GB have finished third, first and first in each of the following Olympic rowing leader boards. He took the helm and navigated British rowing to its golden age, trailing inspiration, betterment and optimism in his wake. With Redgrave at the bow, Britannia rules the waves once more.