Only one rower has won five gold medals at five consecutive editions of the Olympic Games. From Los Angeles 1984 to Sydney 2000, in various boats, on each occasion Sir Steve Redgrave stepped up onto the highest level of the podium. He ended his career on a high at the age of 38, on 23 September 2000, when he won his last title with the British coxless four.
On 23 September 2000, the ninth day of the Sydney Games, when someone asked IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch what had been his favourite moment thus far, he replied: “My highlight was this morning when the British rower [Redgrave] won his fifth gold medal in five different Olympic Games. I was there to congratulate him because he is an athlete who has really written his name in the Olympic history books.” And yes, the rower born by the Thames in Marlow (Buckinghamshire) had, at the age of 38, along with Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster, just won the coxless four final, as he had done in various boats in Los Angeles in 1984, in Seoul in 1988, in Barcelona in 1992 and in Atlanta in 1996. Five consecutive gold medals in rowing – no one had ever done it before and no one has done it since.
The course at the Penrith Regatta Centre was clear. In lane 3, the British boat was in the lead throughout the 2,000m race. It was able to move clear when the Italian boat came within a hair’s breadth at the half-way stage, and was never really threatened for the victory, which was taken in a time of 5:56.24 ahead of Italy (5:56.62) and Australia (5:57.61).
Triumphant return to Marlow
When the coxless two that he formed with Matthew Pinsent won in Atlanta in 1996, the only British gold medal of these Games, Steve Redgrave thought that he and his teammate would enjoy the general public’s attention. But nothing went as planned, and the general fiasco of Team GB in Atlanta eclipsed everything else.
Four years later, victory had an entirely different impact: “After Sydney, we had a similar conversation: 'well, there are so many gold medallists, us rowers will get forgotten'. It was the opposite. There was such an upsurge in excitement and we were at the pinnacle of it. Twenty-five thousand people showed up for the open-top bus ride through Marlow, the whole place ground to a standstill. Even so, I thought: 'Ah, it'll die down in a couple of years. I'd better make the most of it, it'll soon be over'. Ten years on, I'm still at it,” he said in 2010.
In the lead-up to the Games of the XXVII Olympiad, the BBC offered the British public a three-part documentary entitled “Gold Fever”, which closely followed the four rowers in their preparations, and in their private lives (viewers discovered that Steve Redgrave was battling diabetes). This programme was a great success and resulted in a happy ending! After winning this fifth Olympic title, in May 2001, he was knighted by the Queen and became Sir Stephen Geoffrey Redgrave.
First legendary victory at Los Angeles 1984
While the victory in Sydney and Steve Redgrave’s entry into “the Olympic Games history books” will always be remembered, his first title won in the coxed four in Los Angeles in 1984 was also the stuff of British sporting legend. No rowers from his nation had medalled at the Games since London 1948. But high-level rowing in the UK changed the way it worked in the lead-up to the Games being held in the state of California. Up to then, national internal selection regattas had been organised between clubs and universities, and the best crews went to the Games. In 1984, the “Team GB” system was set up: rowers came from all backgrounds, forming a national team to work together.
The first outstanding result came when the team formed of cox Adrian Ellison and rowers Steve Redgrave, then aged 22, Richard Budgett (now the IOC’s Medical and Scientific Director), Martin Cross and Andy Holmes beat the American boat, on 5 August 1984 in the mists of Lake Casitas, the rowing venue for the Los Angeles Games, marking the revival of national performances in a sport that would later reap great rewards for Great Britain.
Two medals in Seoul in 1988 before forming an invincible duo with Matthew Pinsent
After these Games, Steve Redgrave formed a team with Andy Holmes. They became world champions in 1986 in Nottingham (UK) in the coxed pairs (the cox being Patrick Sweeney), and again the following year in the coxless pairs in Copenhagen (Denmark).
It was with this same set-up that they won at the Seoul 1988 Games on 24 September at the River Han venue, where they staved off attacks in the final from Romanian duo Dănuț Dobre and Dragoș Neagu right to the finish line. A second gold medal for the two Britons! They also medalled in the coxed pairs, again with Patrick Sweeney, taking bronze.
In 1990, Redgrave had a new team-mate, eight years his junior: Matthew Pinsent. In the coxless pairs, they began by winning a bronze medal in the World Championships that same year, then remained unbeatable until 1995: victory in the 1991 World Championships in Austria; followed by a crushing success at the Barcelona 1992 Games, with a five-second lead over the German boat at the finish; and world champions in 1993 in Račice (Czech Republic), in 1994 in Indianapolis (USA) and in 1995 in Tampere (Finland).
Triple Olympic champion Steve Redgrave was the flagbearer for the British delegation at Atlanta 1996. In the Olympic venue at Lake Lanier, the duo he had formed with Matthew Pinsent saved their strength in the heats and semi-finals, finishing with slower times than the winners of the other heats. But in the final, the British boat led all the way. The title-holders really had to dig in, however, over the last 100m, when Australians David Weightmann and Robert Scott and France’s Michel Andrieux and Jean-Christophe Rolland drew level. The Australian boat crossed the finish line less than one second later.
Right there and then, still out of breath, the now four-time Olympic champion growled: “If anyone sees me going anywhere near a boat again, they have my permission to shoot me.” But he quickly decided with his friend Matthew to return to training and prepare for a last challenge in the coxless fours. The rest is history...