A golden history will count for little when Britain’s oarsmen take to the water in Beijing. Brian Dick reports.
Steve Williams is quick to denude anyone within earshot of the notion the coxless four gold medal has become as much a part of British heritage as the Crown Jewels.
Victories in Athens four years ago and Sydney four before that may have led the public to assume the equation of an Olympic Games and four Brits in a boat has but one outcome. Top step of the podium, God Save the Queen and a weary yet mightily relieved 30-something tossed into the drink.
“No one else in the world is thinking that way,” the Leamington-born oarsman says. “If anything they are striving harder than ever before to knock us off that perch. All the past has done is put a big target on our backs.”
Williams must accept at least a quarter share of the responsibility for that. The 32-year-old was part of the quartet that so memorably pipped Canada to the finishing line in Greece, though by his own admission that story was all about Matthew Pinsent.
His Magic Oar of Power in one hand and the Baton of Duty carved and passed to him by Steve Redgrave in the other, Pinsent almost fell out of the craft with exhaustion and emotion when it became apparent he had presided over a defence of the coxless four title.
The role of elder statesman belongs to Williams this time. He does not have the profile of the two legendary competitors but he is both older and more experienced than any of his team-mates, Tom James, Peter Reed and Andy Triggs-Hodge and more crucially he is the only one who has been there, done it and written the history. So much will fall on his shoulders in Beijing.
“It’s not like that,” he maintains. “Athens was all about Matthew. Because of what he’d achieved, he was the one doing all the interviews but this is more of an equal boat.”
It is also a boat that has had its problems. While Messrs Pinsent, Williams, James Cracknell and Ed Coode were the flagship of the 2004 fleet, the same cannot be said of the current vintage. Each have been successful in their own right, indeed they number six world championship medals even without Williams’ contribution, but as a quartet they have had a difficult 2008.
It seems incredible to write but they were eighth in the World Cup regatta in Lucerne and second in the most recent event in Poland where they were beaten by a Dutch crew who will have realistic hopes of ending British hegemony next month.
Much of the loss of form can be explained by a loss of fitness.
Their efforts in Lucerne were undermined by the fact both Triggs-Hodge and James were absent with back problems. They were reunited just a few days before the last race and were, therefore, relatively satisfied with silver.
“Satisfied but not happy,” Williams asserts. “Considering how challenging this year has been we have got to look at that as a positive.”
Fine tunings were made during what he euphemistically describes as a ‘work camp’ in the Austrian Alps a fortnight ago and the British team will soon head out to their holding camp in Macau before disembarking to mainland China for their date with destiny.
“We are certainly not the favourites this time,” he says. “There are other British boats who are considered to have a better chance of gold but I know we can do it too.
“In 2004 we thought we would try to stay in touch with Canada’s fast start and finish them off with a fast second half of the race. In the end it went the other way and we only just managed to squeeze home. I’d settle for that now.”
And so would the British public.