30 SEPTEMBER 2000, Page 87


Race against Time

Simon Barnes

STEVE Redgrave: an apology. I wrote a piece in this space a few weeks ago express- ing the opinion that you were mortal. I see now that I was grossly in error and apolo- gise for any distress I may have caused.

Because, before the disbelieving eyes of the world, Redgrave did it. Rowing in his fifth Olympic Games at the age of 38, he won his fifth gold medal as the nose of the men's coxless four crossed the finish 0.38 seconds ahead of the fast-catching-up Ital- ians. It was victory by the finest of margins, and it wrung the nerves of a hopelessly overwrought press contingent, but it didn't worry Redgrave.

`It was never in doubt from 250 metres out,' he said. This seems impossible: it looked as if only sheer desperation plus the telekinetic force of every non-Italian pre- sent had got the boat home. But since Red- grave is not given to wild statements, we must accept the still more extraordinary possibility that it is true.

This is a quest that has had us enthralled for 16 years; a mythic journey of a man that begins with raw youth and high aspira- tion, onward to the period of his prime and the inevitable high achievement of a remarkable man; and finally to his last bat- tle — his battle against decline, a battle against Time.

He looked terrible at the finish four years ago in Atlanta when he made his famous remark that anyone who saw him in a boat again had his full permission to shoot him. This time he looked far worse; I was remind- ed of the Indian who explains his warpaint before battle: 'This is my Death Face.'

This was Redgrave with his Death Face. For a long period it looked as if someone had seen him in a boat again and had taken advantage of the full permission and actu- ally shot him. And that is one of the rea- sons the story has become so vivid — we can see how much it hurts.

We can see that Redgrave has been liv- ing with pain ever since he became a full- time oarsman at the age of 16: 22 years with pain riding as cox in every boat he has ever sat in, in every finish of boiling lungs and steak-hammered limbs — we can actu- ally see the pain of the years.

It looked all over for Redgrave and his crew after a traumatic defeat in Lucerne, beaten into fourth place behind three of their Olympic rivals. Naturally they talked about using this result as a positive, but then sportspeople always do. We wrote it all off as so much sportsbabble: the noble art of self-pretence.

But again, the less likely possibility was the true one. Redgrave alchemised the defeat into gold, turning the final stage of his great quest into a gunslinger's revenge story, seeking out the bad guys who beat them in Lucerne and knocking them off one by one, ending up in a glorious shoot-out in the dawn light. 'I was lucky with the order,' says Clint in Unforgiven. 'But I always did get lucky when it comes to ldllin' folks.'

It is time now for Redgrave to row off into the sunset with his best Clint expression of implacable and mythic heroism. If you have sporting blood in your veins and you failed to stay up to watch the final unfolding of the myth, you missed the greatest piece of sport you will ever see in your life. It was the day when Time itself bit the dust.