“My eldest daughter is a plastic surgeon but she’s been drawn back into hospital medicine because there’s no surgery going on,” Sir Steve Redgrave says as he explains why the Covid-19 crisis has had such a personal impact. “Natalie’s on the frontline. She’s working nights on the Covid ward. She’s 28, healthy, but you hear of many medics and support staff losing their lives. Of course, as a father, you feel very upset.”
Redgrave won five gold medals as a rower at five successive Olympic Games from 1984 to 2000. He is an icon of Olympic sport but we barely mention his achievements. Redgrave is the performance director of Chinese rowing and so has been aware of coronavirus and the reality of lockdown for months longer than most. The 58-year-old also has diabetes and is in the high-risk category.
From his home in Marlow he talks passionately and instructively. Redgrave, unlike many politicians, is neither desperate nor duplicitous. He does not suggest we are over the worst or that the virus is an “invisible mugger” we’ve wrestled to the floor through national grit and unity. Redgrave is more concerned about the government’s patchy record in supplying personal protection equipment to key workers and the breaking of the lockdown by people who remain blind to the consequences.
As he admits his worry about his daughter risking her life to save others there is a hint of anger. “You look at the general public and think: ‘Why are you going out and doing this stuff?’” Redgrave says as he describes people mingling in public spaces.
Is he angry when government ministers talk about loosening the lockdown when the death toll in Britain is expected to soon pass 30,000 “Yeah,” he says, before adding, “and PPE. When there was a big crisis about PPE a week ago the government was talking about easing the protective gear you were able to wear. I didn’t like that at all.”
I can sense Redgrave’s disdain for the errors and evasions that have characterised so much of the government’s handling of this crisis. He also questions some of the advice that has been offered and highlights the limitations of face masks. “I have been more in favour of not wearing masks. If you’ve got the condition you’re more likely to keep it within a mask, which is a good thing, but if you’re healthy a mask doesn’t protect you that much because the cloth ones can absorb [the virus].
“There’s a very good reason surgeons wear face masks during surgery but for this virus they need plastic visors, the gowns, the full PPE. It’s a hassle to go through but that’s one of the things China did extremely well. They were covered from head to foot. We’re more blase about it in the UK.”
Redgrave is not a sensationalist and, in his measured way, he accentuates the positives in regard to the London hospital where his daughter works. “It’s never got to the stage where they thought they’d be overrun. So she’s relatively lucky. She’s on three nights in a row at the moment but she’s getting reasonable recovery. She’s pretty upbeat but, as a parent, you worry.
“Every time I speak to Natalie she’s wearing the suits and doing what we’re told needs to be done. I just hope we’re being told the right stuff. But I’m proud of my daughter working in the NHS. If she was doing cosmetic plastic surgery she would be earning a lot more money than from reconstructive surgery following trauma. But if we didn’t have these people we’d be lost.
“That’s the great thing about Thursday nights. We’re clapping all our key workers and understand their importance but Natalie was getting less money than a primary school teacher as a six-year qualified doctor. They’re now being clapped every Thursday and rightly so because society can’t survive without them.”
Redgrave suggests one of the reasons why “the Chinese government was so fantastic about shutting the country down when Covid-19 started was because it’s a very hierarchical society. If your superior tells you what to do, you listen. But we saw a few weeks back that China has suddenly found 1,600 people who passed away had slipped off the lists. At the epicentre of Wuhan, even though they reacted with great speed, I ask myself big questions of the figures [of the death rate]. Are they real? If you’re the first society dealing with it there is a fine balance in getting the economic and safety elements right.”
Does he suspect the Chinese government has kept the statistics deliberately low? “I don’t know. Spain and Italy have had more deaths from Covid. Both of those societies are so community-based, as is China. I would have just expected it to be more rife in China. We thought it was bad at the time but now we’ve seen other countries pass them. You’re thinking: ‘Hmm. Not so sure about this.’”
Redgrave was in Portugal with the Chinese squad in March when the European lockdown began. He returned to Marlow for a brief visit and, as he remembers, “My pharmacist said: ‘You’re probably safer in China now than in the UK.’ But you feel safer at home. The rowers wanted to go home for the same reason even though at the time China seemed the worst place to be going because of the infection and death. Within days of me being back in the UK, I received a government letter telling me I was in a high-risk group.”
His diabetes puts him in grave danger should he contract the virus. “I’m monitoring lists from around the world quite closely. Second top of deaths from the virus are people with diabetes. I remember when the first people were dying my wife, who is the British Rowing doctor, said: ‘So-and-so has died but they had underlying health conditions.’ I said, ‘If I passed away, that’s what they’d say about me.’ She said, ‘Don’t be stupid. You’re fit and healthy.’ But I pointed out that if I pass away, they would say I had underlying health conditions. I was told by the government to isolate for 12 weeks because I was in a category with people in their 70s and 80s.”
Redgrave looks fit and well during our Zoom interview and he stresses that “this lockdown feels normal to me because this has been my life for two years in China where I live above a boathouse. You walk five minutes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When people say, ‘God, this lockdown is terrible’, I say: ‘Welcome to my world.’ If I can sneak out for a Starbucks once a week [in China] it’s a big deal. So this lockdown isn’t so crazy. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture.”
The offer to run Chinese rowing came “totally out of the blue” two years ago but Redgrave’s enthusiasm is plain. “I got so excited about a powerhouse that was very underrated within our sport. China has been rowing for only 32 years internationally. They’ve won one Olympic gold medal – at Beijing in 2008 – but China should be in the top three with their resources and population.
“My contract runs to 2024, and the original aim was to win multiple golds at the Paris Olympics. The Chinese Olympic Committee have changed the rules slightly because they now want multiple rowing golds in Tokyo [at next year’s rearranged Olympics].”
Redgrave’s impact has been such that, at last year’s world championships, “We won three events – and a silver too. Two of the golds were in Olympic-class boats and we’re the first Asian rowing heavyweight men’s group to win any medal. My attitude is I haven’t really done much and I try to keep rational. I tell the Chinese, ‘You’ve won one Olympic gold at a home Games. Don’t say we’re going to win five golds. I can guarantee we won’t. Let’s win one Olympic gold away from home. That would be a great step forward.’ We’ve got an opportunity of winning two but their ambition is a lot higher than I see their reality.
“But people thought I was crazy in the UK when I said I’m going to win Olympic gold. When I started we’d won five gold medals from all sports. So you need ambition. Hopefully China becomes a rowing powerhouse in Paris and LA.”
Redgrave hired Tom Kay, a British three-times world champion rower, as the Chinese men’s chief coach. Paul Thompson, the Australian who had such success with the GB women’s team, has also been appointed by Redgrave. Both coaches are currently in China and working with their rowers. Redgrave says, “We’ve been pretty lucky. We were in America and Portugal so missed the lockdown in China. Then as the global lockdown started the Chinese rowers felt safer in their own country. They’re now able to train almost normally.”
It sounds as if the Chinese are enjoying a massive advantage over every major rowing nation? “I would hope so,” Redgrave says before laughing. “But there’re pluses and minuses in every system. One of the minuses on the Chinese side is being in a permanent training camp. You can suffer mental staleness. But the Brits are training at home on rowing machines so it may be a slight advantage for China currently. But will the training the Brits and Germans miss affect them next year? Probably not.”
Redgrave is an ambassador and academy member for Laureus – the organisation which uses sport to bring about change and spread opportunity around the world. “I share the same goal of wanting to help young people achieve. We remember what Nelson Mandela said 20 years ago at the first Laureus awards. He highlighted the power of sport to offer hope and change lives. I’ve just been blown away by the depth of people involved in Laureus. I’ve achieved a great deal within sport but I see myself as a minor player alongside heroes of mine – like Edwin Moses and Ian Botham.”
During the lockdown he has reflected on sport’s role in our new world. Redgrave suggests “sport tended to be better under Labour” as this government looks to welcome back football. He argues that, “despite Covid, sport still has a huge part to play. There is a bigger role for us as sportspeople. There’re rumours in the UK that football is coming back and will be played behind closed doors. That’s defeating the object of sport which should bring people together, and inspire them. This decision is just motivated by business. We should have more unity and stand up and ask: ‘Is this the right thing?’ We should set aside the commercial pressure of procuring TV revenue and think about what really matters.
“Sport can make that leap and do the right thing. Coming out of Covid will change society and for the better. But we will slowly seep back to how we were before the crisis unless we remember those feelings we have when we clap the NHS workers every Thursday night. It’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of my daughter on the frontline.”
Laureus Sport for Good was established in 2000 with the aim of using the power of sport to transform the lives of millions of young people