'I've always said: whatever happens, it should not stop athletes from competing'
Sir Steve Redgrave is not a man who pulls his verbal punches. Britain's most successful Olympian, and national flag-bearer at the 1992 and 1996 Games, is notoriously forthright, once famously telling a reporter: 'If anyone sees me anywhere near a boat again, they have permission to shoot me.'
Redgrave had just hauled himself from his coxless pairs boat in Atlanta in 1996, having won his fourth Olympic gold. Tired and emotional, he swore never to compete again. He was soon back on the water, however, and followed up with a fifth rowing gold medal in the coxless fours in Sydney in 2000. He subsequently retired, and soon after was awarded a knighthood.
Now, sitting in the grassy courtyard of the Well Bar in Beijing, sipping a beer and chatting casually, Redgrave is noticeably relaxed. The intense, sometimes prickly, Olympic competitor who 'dedicated 25 years to one aim: winning Olympic gold medals' has mellowed. Life is different now, but his opinions remain strong - and his passionate advocacy of the Olympic spirit is intense.
'As a sportsman, I have no problem standing side by side with business people to make a political stand,' Redgrave says. 'And I was quite happy that there were political statements being made around the 2008 torch relay. But I've always said that whatever happens, it should not stop Olympic athletes from competing.'
A Olympic gold medallist, and a participant in the disrupted London leg of the Beijing torch relay, Redgrave knows of what he speaks. 'I've never been to a Games where there weren't outside issues involved,' he says when drawn on the pre-2008 controversies. 'In that sense, Beijing isn't any different.'
As an 18-year-old rowing hopeful, Redgrave didn't attend the boycott-blighted 1980 Moscow Olympics. The boycott of those Games by some countries was, he says, 'a cheap political stunt that achieved nothing. Three years later, the Russians were still in Afghanistan'. The disappointment of not making the Great Britain team in 1980 acted as a motivating force for the next four years. Redgrave won a gold medal in his first Olympics, in Los Angeles, in 1984.
A constant round of global travelling and competing comprised a large portion of his life, but ultimately, Redgrave says, it is Olympic achievements that count, not the cities in which they occur. 'I was at a dinner last week in Beijing, and there was a poster of me on the wall. It said: 'Olympic gold medallist 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000' - but it didn't mention the locations for any of those Games.'
Beijing 2008 will be no exception, Redgrave adds. 'Look at Michael Phelps. In years to come people will always talk about the man who won eight gold medals, not where he won them.' Redgrave's admiration for Phelps is clear, joking that he had to 'slog it out over five Olympic Games' to earn his five gold medals, whereas Phelps managed to win 'eight golds in one week'.
Competing for gold medals is now a thing of the past for Redgrave, who is finding a new niche in the business world. 'When I retired eight years ago, I was lucky to be offered several options, and I took a lot of them on,' he says. 'I'd been so focused for so long, and wanted to explore new things, and find out what I could do for the rest of my working life'.
Among those new options, Redgrave has launched a charitable trust, collaborated on three books, including an autobiography, and launched a Fairtrade men's leisurewear brand, called FiveG. He is in Beijing working as an analyst for BBC TV Sport, has a commercial relationship with Team Visa and is a board member of Brand Rapport, a Hong Kong-based marketing and sponsorship agency.
It's a packed working programme that Redgrave says he enjoys, but he admits his first love remains the sport at which he excelled. 'The important thing for me is that I am able to stay very close to competitive rowing, because I am so passionate about it,' he says.
Working closely with Olympic sports will play a key role in Redgrave's life over the next four years. Late last week, while returning to downtown Beijing from the Olympic rowing centre in Shunyi, Redgrave called his manager to say that this was turning into his 'busiest Olympics ever'.
The response from the other end of the line was instant and instructive: 'This is nothing, just wait until London 2012.'
Having been 'heavily involved' with the successful 2012 London bid team, and regarded in Britain as a national sporting treasure, Redgrave will most likely be a central figure at the London Games. For now, however, he is unsure of the exact role he will take on. 'I've been offered a couple of jobs, but neither really grabbed my attention,' he says matter-of-factly. In business, as in sport, Steve Redgrave has never been one to compromise.
Olympic Games Redgrave has competed in and number of golds he has won: 5