For anyone growing up in the small town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire, it is hard not to notice the esteem in which the British rower, motivational speaker and sports ambassador Sir Steve Redgrave is held. From the larger-than-life-size statue that stands atop a mound in Marlow’s park to the Redgrave Sports Centre opened in 2013, the five-time Olympic gold medallist really is the pride of Marlow, born and raised.
So it is with childlike anticipation that I await the phone conversation with our local hero. As someone who has never got my feet wet in the rowing sense, I feel somewhat unqualified to conduct the interview, but I cannot resist engaging him on the topic about which my knowledge stems exclusively from a rather hazy Summer VIIIs.
With our readership in mind I delve into the waters of the Tideway, keen to hear Sir Steve’s thoughts on one of the most famous and popular events of the rowing calendar. He explains that he thought it is the tradition of the Boat Race which makes it so appealing to such a wide audience. Such is the fascination with the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge, not just here in the UK but across the world, that rivalries between the two naturally attract interest. Anything that sees these prestigious establishments pitted against each other – from the sporting varsities to University Challenge – is watched with curiosity and excitement.
We then move on to the topic of gender equality in sport, taking as starting point the two historic Varsities happening this year: the Women’s Boat Race on the Tideway and the Women’s Rugby Varsity at Twickenham. Redgrave informs me that this certainly reflects the rising popularity and regard of women’s rowing, a trend that is starting at the very bottom with “a lot of young girls taking up the sport – more than ever before.” He has recognised a similar phenomenon with women’s rugby, particularly since the English team’s victory in the 2014 World Cup. However, he underlines that there is a lot of work to be done on the long road to equality in this particular sport as is painfully evident when one compares the coverage of the recent men’s World Cup to that of last year’s women’s competition.
Redgrave is an ambassador of sport amongst young people and of the continuing legacy of the 2012 London Olympics. He strongly believes that exposing both boys and girls to sport at a young age can act to remedy the gender inequality of some sports at a higher level.
“It’s a very difficult area,” he replies. “You need to promote sport, but whether it’s for equality or just for the sake of giving kids something to do, encouraging the young to get involved and get active is always the right way to go about it.”
More specifically, with regard to the gender imbalance in some sports, he states that the effect is often self-propelling. Taking women’s soccer in the US as an example, he explains how an increase in school-age girls playing the sport caused an explosion of interest, propelling it into the public sphere. He hopes to see the English game move in a similar direction, with the semi-professional FA Women’s Premier League gaining increasing media coverage and attention.
For Redgrave, it seems that sporting publicity and exposure are crucially important elements for the success of any sport. As Chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, he hopes that live streaming of this year’s event on YouTube will extend the reach of one of the world’s most prestigious annual rowing regattas. He informs me that this year witnessed the greatest number of American teams entering ever. The live streaming, he tells me, allowed friends and relatives to watch competitors row from thousands of miles away which – given the size of the US and the rarelyvideoed nature of rowing – may well have been a first and very special occasion. Here in England, where sporting fixtures are often no more than a stone’s throw from home, we somewhat take it for granted that family and friends can easily watch and support us in our sporting endeavours.
With so many students participating in rowing at all levels here at Oxford, I am interested to hear how Redgrave has managed pursuing a career in an activity which presumably started as a hobby. He tells me that throughout his career he has seen rowing become an increasingly respected sport, from amateur status when he started out to attracting an average of 30,000 people at each race during the London Olympics.
However he outlines the near impossibility of making a living solely through rowing. In a sport where a world championship race rarely draws more than 1,000 spectators, athletes have to survive on grants from national organisations, sponsorship and the proceeds from related work such as motivational speeches and sport promotion. In talking with Redgrave, it is easy to see but difficult to appreciate the difficulties and challenges he has had to overcome to achieve what he has.
We end our conversation on a more personal, light-hearted note. Here in Oxford, the Isis is seen with varying affection by rowers and punters alike, and the river is arguably one of the most beautiful parts of the city. From years of training both on and off the water I assume he must be fairly well acquainted with the Thames – does he have any specific parts that he is particularly fond of, I wonder?
He laughs, and tells me yes, he does know the river rather well. He says he has always loved rivers and streams, particularly in mountains. Closer to home however, he names the Thames from Marlow to Cookham in Berkshire as a highly regarded stretch for rowing, where he trained extensively during his career.
He divulges to me that he has just bought a slipper launch locally from Andrew’s Boatyard – a long-term ambition of his – and is looking forward to chugging up the river next summer. “I’d like to go upstream from Marlow to Oxford, stopping at various pubs along the way.”
As I thanked Redgrave for his time, I assured him that even if I am hopelessly ignorant about rowing, here was something at least with which I could empathise.