It occurred to me recently that I have almost certainly met more British Olympic gold medallists than the Queen. If that is the case, then I’m truly sorry, ma’am. I could work it out and clear this up definitively, but that would involve spoiling a story that has been two long years in the making.
My tale begins at a table, sat opposite my friend and colleague Nick Etherton. The fact that the table was in a bar might have had something to do with our making a pledge to try to track down every single living British Olympic champion. At the time, we could only guess how many there were, where they all lived, who was the oldest, and, more importantly, whether they would talk to us.
But why? Well, the word “legacy” is used a lot in connection with the 2012 games – a legacy for the athletes, a legacy for London – but what about a broadcasting legacy? What about something to mark the arrival of the Games on these shores for the first time since 1948? That was the basis of our slurred conversation, and it was then we decided to chronicle Britain’s modern-day Olympic glory.
Before long we had a list, and the magic number was 114. I had hoped for fewer.
First to confirm was a rosy-cheeked knight of the realm, Sir Matthew Pinsent, who just happened to work in the office next door. That’s about as easy as it got. The hardest to pin down were those still active and chasing more gold in London, given their hectic training schedules.
The gap in financial support, remuneration and recognition between our current generation and those from yesteryear is obvious, but what unites almost all is dedication, supreme ability and, I’m delighted to say, a level of humility that I suspect comes after, rather than before, winning an Olympic title.
The biggest team we feature is the 1988 hockey side from Seoul, who made sure everyone got a medal by making a wave of substitutions in the closing minutes of the final. They’re closely followed by the rowing eight from Sydney, who made it nine thanks to the cox, Rowley Douglas.
Meeting Sir Steve Redgrave, gold medallist with the coxless four in Sydney, only reduced my list by one, not five, more’s the pity. Redgrave is a colossus – but for every Redgrave there is a Ken Matthews, who collapsed at the 1960 Rome Olympics during the 20k walk and was taken to hospital by three Italian nuns. Happily, he won gold four years later in Tokyo.
The list embraces the comeback queen of Athens 2004, 800m and 1500m champion Kelly Holmes; swimmer Judy Grinham, who took the 100m backstroke gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and went on to appear in a caper movie with Donald Sinden; decathlete Daley Thompson, who took consecutive golds in 1980 and 1984; and Bob Braithwaite, who cared little for winning, receiving merely a pass to his local cinema for his heroic efforts at clay-pigeon shooting in Mexico almost 45 years ago.
So… did I manage to meet them all? Well, not yet.
Even this article is being written just minutes before RT’s deadline, after I had to rush to Ireland to meet Leslie Law, a three-day-eventer who won in 2004. Law had travelled from his home in the USA to go horse shopping, and a ferry to Dublin was more within budget!
I’ve been asked if I’ll do a follow-up, interviewing our new golden generation from this summer. To be honest, I’m already the most boring man at the dinner table, happy to spew on about my new obsession for as long as people manage to stay awake, so I may just leave it to the next unstable broadcaster to round up the new gold medallists – if they have six months of their life to spare.
Colin Murray’s Gold Run is on Radio 5 Live, Sundays at 11:00am
This article was first published in the Radio Times, edition 19-25 May