Britain’s leading Olympian has retired from the soul-bending agony of international athletics and has begun a number of jobs in construction, the industry he left 20-odd years ago. Tom Broughton found out what they are, and why he’s returned.

When Sir Steve Redgrave was a young man labouring on building sites in Buckinghamshire for his family construction business, his dad used to call him “the foreman”. This was less a reference to the single-minded determination and leadership skills that would later win Redgrave junior an unprecedented five Olympic gold medals in successive Games, more an observation that he would spend his time standing idly around with his hands in his pockets.

Sir Steve Redgrave
Sir Steve Redgrave (Portrait by Eva Vermandel)

“My dad was great. He used to give me all the time off I needed,” Redgrave recalls. “He wasn’t the best payer in the world, but then I probably got a hell of a lot more than I was worth. I used to turn up in the middle of the morning after a training session on the river and then, late afternoon, I would have to go off training again. But he would never say anything; he was happy with the situation.”

If his first stint in the construction industry betrayed little in the way of dedicated commitment, his second seems altogether more promising. Three decades on from his lacklustre existence as his father’s lackey, and having bagged a knighthood in the meantime, Redgrave has decided to go back to his roots. He is considering setting up his own small development business on a similar scale to his father’s business and has just signed a six-year deal with consultant Gleeds to become its London 2012 ambassador.

Gleeds’ idea is for Redgrave to work across the business, giving the kind of inspiration and motivation to the company’s staff that he employed to conquer the rowing world. “It’s very early days,” he says, “but I’ve done a lot of motivational speaking over the past 15 years and particularly in the past five. I found that a one-off speech is all well and good, and very well paid, but I wanted a project on an ongoing basis”.

This is exactly what Gleeds has offered. Redgrave will work within the company’s recruitment and training academy and speak on the university milk-round circuit to try to lure the pick of the graduate crop to a consultancy firm already in a fierce competition to attract the best staff.

A sporting simile is clearly apt here, and Redgrave is keen to use his experiences to help give Gleeds the kind of sustained success that he was used to throughout his rowing career. “Sport is very straightforward. If you finish first, you’re the winner, and if you don’t you’re not. In business it’s different; there are thousands of successful businesses out there, but they aren’t ranked. However, they still need continuous improvement and have to have the same structures in place as in sport, such as planning and motivation, in order to be successful.”

It is unlikely that Redgrave’s work with Gleeds will end with motivational speeches. There is also the small matter of the millions of pounds of contracts looming for the right consultants with the right contacts. Gleeds senior partner Richard Steer is keen to stress his desire for Redgrave to be an ambassador for the whole company, but admits that he will have his uses when it comes to lobbying the Olympic delivery organisations for work. “Steve obviously knows his way around these organisations,” he says.

This could be regarded as something of an understatement. Five years ago Redgrave was a member of the London 2012 bid team desperately trying to convince the government to bid for the Games. He also chaired the athletes’ advisory group for the bid’s chairman, Lord Coe. In short, Redgrave was instrumental in getting the government to back the bid, when for a long time it looked as though it wasn’t going to.

He recalls: “The government didn’t think we could win it and therefore thought: why try and put a bid together? The impression I got to start with was that the government was meeting us to see what it could give British sports people as a sweetener for not bidding.”

He says the government only began to change its stance when it realised that public opinion supported the idea of London hosting the greatest sporting extravaganza on earth. “I remember talking to Tony Blair soon after they committed and he said: ‘Have we got a chance of winning this?’ By the end he began to see the reasons why we should be bidding even if we weren’t successful. You’ve only got to look at the feel-good factor that sport brings – just look at the Ashes and the Rugby World Cup and what they have done for the nation.”

The impression I got to start with was that the government was meeting us to see what it could give British sports people as a sweetener for not bidding

Redgrave believes that Blair’s very public endorsement, including a visit to Singapore two days before the announcement was made, was instrumental to the bid’s eventual success. “Internationally the London bid was seen to have weak government support, due to Paris having bid for the Games before and President Chirac playing a significant role,” he says. “Having Tony Blair coming out to Singapore two days before the announcement, with the Gleneagles summit happening on the day of the announcement, was a huge commitment.

I think it persuaded a few voters that we as a country were behind the bid.”

He adds that London was dubbed a “reality” bid by its competitors, as it was based too much on computer imagery, and that it was Blair’s presence in Singapore that helped bring the imagery to life.

Which just leaves the small matter of delivering the Games on time. On this subject, Redgrave reveals the kind of bullish confidence you might expect from a man who won an Olympic gold medal in an endurance sport at the less-than-tender age of 38: “There are going to be a lot of question marks, but I really think the reality is that we are going to be finished ahead of schedule. That’s a very bold statement at this stage but a lot of thought has gone into our plans. Not just the construction element but also the legacy.”

He points to a change in attitude from the government when it comes to the costs involved in delivering big projects. “Of course they can’t just throw money at it, as it would be our money, London council tax payers’ money and money underwritten by the government. But they’ve assessed a lot of other projects – projects like the Millennium Dome and Wembley Stadium – and looked at how the costs could have been cut.”

He believes that, as a result, the government is realistic about the budgets: “Over 18 months they’ve scrutinised the costs. They’ve already realised the costs will be higher than estimated and do not want to get caught out at the development stage.”

History dictates that all Olympic cities face scare stories and the drama of venues not being ready on time. But Redgrave says the omens are changing, and the indications from Beijing are the 2008 Games will be the first to be finished ahead of its construction schedule. He says: “The reason why Athens became a fiasco and there was such a race to the finish line for the construction firms involved was twofold. First the Greek government began the works too late so it was in effect held to ransom by the people building it. And second, there were the security costs: in between Athens winning and delivering the Games the world saw 9/11. The security risks have been factored into the London bid’s budget. Unless a terrorist attack occurs on a scale that we’ve not seen before, the London Games’ budget should not overrun.”

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, Redgrave will be maximising Gleeds’ involvement through its Beijing office as well as concentrating on his London 2012 and television commitments. He says it is “unlikely” that he will be competing in Beijing but adds “never say never … you never know”. This is perhaps a sensible equivocation, coming from the man who declared to the world live on television after securing his fourth gold medal in Atlanta in 1996 – and four years before securing his fifth – “Shoot me if you ever see me in a boat again”.

For now, though, he has other tasks to focus on. He has asked his dad to help him build a house but is not sure that he would relish the Steve Redgrave work ethic that would come with the build process. “At 70 I think he has decided he is too old. He knows how I work from when I was rowing.”

Maybe it’s time for Redgrave senior to be the foreman for a change.