Going into the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, 38-year-old Steve Redgrave already had a glittering career. He’d won four gold medals in successive Olympic Games – and following his gold in Atlanta, 1996, he famously announced: “Anybody who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me.”
But he had changed his mind within days.
“People were saying that Sydney would be the best ever, and the best ever would seem like a good time to end your career,” Redgrave later explained. “I felt I was just about young enough to go there and win.”
His ambition now “to make the Olympic rings in gold medals,” Redgrave was chosen for the British coxless fours team along with Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster. The foursome got off to a flying start, winning the World Championships in September 1997 and again in 1998, despite Redgrave having then been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
But in July 2000, just a few months before the Sydney Olympics, the Britons suffered their first ever defeat. They came fourth in the World Cup Regatta behind Australia, Italy and New Zealand – and faced the same teams as they went into the Olympics final at Penrith Lakes on Friday 23 September.
In front of 25,000 spectators – including his father, wife and three children, and thousands of British fans – Redgrave and his teammates set out to make history. As Olympic Games broadcaster Barry Smith later said: “He was now going to attempt something which had never been achieved in the sort of physically demanding sport that rowing both was and is.”
Redgrave, Pinsent, Foster and Cracknell made a brilliant start, quickly establishing a lead of half a length over Australia and the US. They had set a fierce pace – around 40 strokes per minute – but when they increased this to 44 per minute, at the 1000m halfway point, the Italians began to match them and close the gap.
In an electrifying finish, the British four managed to beat the Italians by a mere 0.38 seconds – taking the Olympic title in 5 minutes, 56.24 seconds.
As Redgrave slumped over his oar, Cracknell, seated behind him, reached for his shirt and patted him on the back. Pinsent climbed over Foster to give Redgrave a congratulatory hug – and then threw himself into the water.
According to the Times, Redgrave told his teammates: "Remember these six minutes for the rest of your lives. Listen to the crowd and take it all in. This is the stuff of dreams."
And as he took to the Olympic medal podium, Redgrave followed his own advice. “I knew that was going to be the last time I was ever in that position,” he later said. “I was savouring that moment.”
Now the only person to have won gold medals at five Olympic Games in an endurance sport, Redgrave was also presented with a gold Olympic pin by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in recognition of his achievement.
"I said beforehand that Steve had achieved the title of ultimate Olympian irrespective of what happened today,” said his teammate Matthew Pinsent. “Today, winning his fifth Olympic gold medal I think he's put himself into the greatest Olympian that certainly Great Britain has ever produced and arguably in the world.”
Said Redgrave: "I'm just an ordinary guy who went quite quick in a boat, really.”