Sir Steve Redgrave has backed Northern Ireland rowing hope Alan Campbell to strike gold at the London 2012 Olympics.
The ringing endorsement of Coleraine sculler Campbell came as five-times gold medallist Redgrave addressed a University of Ulster sports dinner in Belfast’s Ramada Hotel on Saturday night.
Redgrave proved to be an engaging and insightful speaker in a drive to raise funds for the University’s Northern Ireland Sports Institute at Jordanstown.
Its superb, state of the art facilities, partnered by Sport NI, are designed to boost the performances of elite competitors like Campbell.
And Redgrave acknowledged its importance as he singled out the immensely talented and dedicated Campbell as Northern Ireland's best chance of joining our small band of Olympic gold winners — Dame Mary Peters, who was in attendance, hockey players Stephen Martin and Jim Kirkwood and Winter Olympics bobsleigh champion Robin Dixon, now Lord Glentoran.
“Alan Campbell is the fastest we've had in single sculls,” observed Redgrave. “I thought he had a medal chance in the last Beijing Olympics but he was struck down before the games by virus that required knee surgery, which left him on crutches for three weeks.
“No-one expected him to compete let alone make the final and to finish fifth was incredible.
“Now he's a new world silver medallist, roll on 2012, because I think he's got a fantastic chance.”
That, coming from one of the greatest Olympians of all time, should spur Campbell no end.
Redgrave set his audience thinking with his philosophy on achieving the kind of success that seemed to come naturally to him — nine world titles and three Commonwealth as well as those five Olympic golds.
“You have to take the impossible and look at it in a different way,” he said “Four years might seem like a long time, building up to a Games, but if you break it down to hours and minutes and make even 0.1 of a second improvement every minute you train, that can make a difference.
“Talent is not enough. You've got to go out and do it the hard way. That's the attitude I had.”
Redgrave also offered a personal view on the controversial admission of professional sports like tennis, basketball and now golf to the Olympic arena.
“When it first started with tennis and the US basketball dream team, I thought it wasn't fair.
“Then I saw how much these multi-millionaires wanted to win Olympic gold for no financial reward and I thought, ‘they really want to be here, it means so much to them'. Its changed the face of the Olympics, but I don't think the Games have been diminished as a result, though individuals have been enriched as competitors by the experience.”
And his view on golf as an Olympic sport, given the variance with the Games ideal of inclusiveness by the men-only club memberships that still exist, most notably at the home of golf, St Andrews?
“I've no problem with golf coming in, though perhaps they should make it amateur,” he insisted. “Will it make the Olympics better? No. Will it boost golf? Undoubtedly. Nothing supersedes the Olympics.”
Asked, by compere Adrian Logan, which of his many triumphs was the greatest of all, Redgrave provided another analogy that confirmed his reputation as the most erudite of British sportsmen.
“I'm a father of three children,” he said, “and on a different day a different one is the favourite but they are all very special. So it is with winning medals. When you cross the line and they put that medal around your neck and you look back over the highs a lows of the four years hard work and sacrifice it took to get there, they are all different but they are all special.”
Redgrave left them laughing, too, as he showed a big screen, fly-on-the-wall dvd of his quest for gold: “Three times in my career, I've fallen off my rowing machine in training and twice the BBC cameras have been there!”