THE Raeburn Room in Edinburgh University’s Old College is lined with portraits of worthies of centuries past.
Distinguished men in their day, they may even have been awe-inspiring characters – but surely not as physically imposing as the man who is sitting in front of me, clutching the slender stem of a wine glass in his massive left paw.
More than a dozen years on from his retirement as a rower, Sir Steve Redgrave is still bursting with vitality. Other athletes may slip into slobdom when their competing days are done, but at 51 and 6ft 5in he remains a solid slab of a man.
That should hardly come as a surprise. This, after all, was the competitor who stayed at the top of his sport for 16 years. Athletes in any field will attest to the difficulty of peaking at the right time even once: Redgrave did it time after time after time.
Between 1984 and 2000 there were five Olympic Games. He won gold at every one. Along the way he also won nine world titles, not to mention three Commonwealth Games gold medals here in Edinburgh, in 1986.
The rowing competition took place at Strathclyde Country Park, so England’s rowing team stayed in Glasgow. But Redgrave came to the capital for the opening ceremony, and has retained an affinity with it.
In 2001, for example – incidentally, the year in which he was knighted – he received an honorary degree from Heriot-Watt University. And this afternoon he has just been given the same honour by Edinburgh University, “in recognition of his outstanding sporting achievements and role as a sports ambassador”.
Soon it will be time for the traditional post-ceremony dinner in the company of the three others who have been honoured – tennis coach Judy Murray, racing driver Susie Wolff and film director Lynne Ramsay – and hosted by the university’s Chancellor, HRH The Princess Royal. But first, he has quarter of an hour or so to look back – and also to look forward, to next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
In addition to the charity work he has carried out since retiring from competition, Redgrave last year became 2012 Sports Legacy Champion. His main aim in the role is to ensure that the enthusiasm generated by the London Olympics does not dissipate, and in that respect, he feels, Glasgow 2014 will be a valuable guide.
“It will be really interesting to see how much it grasps the general public outside sport,” he says. “Last time the home countries had the Commonwealth Games was 2002, when they were in Manchester. Nobody was interested in it until it actually started – and then everyone raved about how good it was and how it was pretty special.
“There is quite a lot of interest in the Commonwealth Games, but it is a lower-key event than the Olympic Games and I’m hoping it  is not going to be overshadowed from that. But it’s very important from an athlete’s point of view. It’s really the first time that young athletes get the opportunity of competing in a multi-sport environment – and there’s only two, the Commonwealth and the Olympic Games. I feel the bigger picture is the Olympic Games, but if you can win or do well at the Commonwealth Games it’s very important within your career.
“Matt Pinsent” – with whom he won three of his five Olympic titles – “never had the opportunity of competing at a Commonwealth Games, and any time it’s brought up in conversation he’s sort of: ‘Oh well, it was a bit of a pot hunt, really – an easy event’. Well, you think Great Britain is the top-ranked rowing nation at the moment, New Zealand is the second, Australia is the third – it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.”
Rowing has not been in the Commonwealth Games since 1986, and is not on the programme for next year – a fact which appeals to Redgrave’s still-fierce competitive streak. “No rowing – I’m pleased about that,” he jokes. “It means I’m still reigning Commonwealth champion.”
Each of the four graduands made a short speech after being presented with their diplomas, and Murray talked of the need for more tennis courts if the sport is to make the most of the enthusiasm for it created by her sons. Redgrave agrees that facilities play a part, but believes that the roots of success are cultivated by people such as Murray herself.
“Judy would find it difficult to say herself, but it’s about her coaching style, her enthusiasm and passion. It’s that passion that rubs off on young people.
“Facilities are important, and you’ve got to have somewhere to be able to go and do your sport, but it’s about people like Judy, people like Francis Smith [his English teacher] who got me into rowing to start with. It’s about them making it fun. And one of the things where I do agree with her is that there isn’t enough coaches out there at that sort of level.
“Any sport that you’re doing at the top level gives you that opportunity to inspire people. There are more people wanting to play tennis because of what Andy and Jamie have done over the past few years, as there are who want to row because of what Katherine Grainger has done.
“It’s about that spark. It’s about those people who can inspire you to take your dream further. And without people like that, it doesn’t matter how much potential you have for something – you’re not going to fulfil it.
“At Leander Club, where I did some of my training, there was rising damp in the gym and every time that it rained the floodwater would come in and sop the carpets. The ceiling was falling down…
“It wasn’t a very nice environment – but we’ve produced a hell of a lot of champions. So it’s not really about state-of-the-art facilities. It’s about people. Now it’s been upgraded, it is state of the art, and it’s still producing great athletes. You need those figureheads at the top doing well – that’s what inspires the next generation to give it a go. But if they’re giving it a go and not having quality coaching, or enthusiastic coaching, they’re going to fail by the wayside.
“There are many Commonwealth, Olympic and world champions out there – we need a system to find them, and get them into the right sports so they can achieve what they’re not even dreaming about at the moment.”
Redgrave himself is an example of that. Growing up in Marlow, a small town on the Thames some 30 miles west of London, he certainly never dreamed of becoming any kind of rower, never mind the most successful one in the world.
“Rowing is seen to be a private-school and university sport, and I came from a comprehensive background. But I did live in Marlow, which has a pretty big river that flows through it.
“When I was a kid, Marlow Regatta was the biggest one-day regatta in the world. Growing up in the area, it was about the fair coming to town, and a festival weekend. All the people messing about in boats – that wasn’t really for me. I probably would have played rugby if it wasn’t for Francis saying ‘Why don’t you give rowing a go?’ ”
He probably would have been quite good at rugby too, I suggest, suppressing the thought of any change in history that a 27-year-old Redgrave could have brought about had he been in the white jersey of England on a certain spring day at Murrayfield in 1990. “I would have hoped so, but I would have needed the guidance to get up there,” he replies. “Because rowing is very dedicated and disciplined, I became very fit, so when I went on to a rugby pitch it was with a rowing fitness. They wanted to put me at second row even though I was one of the fastest on the pitch – I was a reasonable sprinter.
“At one of the dinners I went to when I was still competing, [former England prop] Jeff Probyn said: ‘You could be a second-row forward for England’. I said ‘You’ve got to be joking – I’ve not played since I was at school’. He said ‘No, with somebody like me guiding you around’.”
But by that time Francis Smith had guided him into rowing, and there was to be no turning back. No rest either, or virtually none, until that fifth gold medal was in the bag.
In the immediate aftermath of the fourth, at Atlanta in 1996, Redgrave uttered the famous words that led millions to conclude they would never see him compete at that level again. “If anybody sees me going anywhere near a boat again, they have my permission to shoot me,” he said.
You could hardly think of a more definitive way of saying “Never again”, and yet within a day he had made up his mind. He would be back. He would report for duty in the autumn, and begin the long, punishing programme of training that would end in his fifth and final triumph, at the Sydney Games of 2000.
“I didn’t row for another three months, but in 24 hours I’d made the decision,” he explains. “I joke that we sat down as a family and did it on a vote. I decided what I was going to do, but didn’t speak to Matthew or my coach until the day before formal training started.
“I wasn’t quite ready to come back, so I met up with Jurgen [Grobler, the Great Britain coach] the day before and told him I did want to carry on but I wasn’t ready – I needed another two weeks. He actually gave me a month, but he said, ‘If you’re not back by the first of December, don’t bother coming back’.
“And I knew from that point I wasn’t going to get a day off from then right the way through till Sydney. So I didn’t go back any earlier. I took the extra two weeks that I wasn’t asking for, and when I came back that was it.
“But it’s such a hard process, making that commitment. I remember being in the gym, for the second session of that first day back, and I wanted it to be so hard. If that session had been easy, I would have thought, ‘Well, why didn’t I take more time off after each Games?’ ”
After every Olympics there is a batch of athletes who have to make the decision that Redgrave did in 1996, and London last year was no different. Chris Hoy, for one, decided to retire, while Grainger, a gold medallist in 2012 after three silvers, has yet to announce whether she will go on to Rio.
The Scot, who will shortly sit next to Redgrave at the dinner, presented him for his degree at the ceremony in the McEwan Hall. They know each other well, and whatever Grainger decides, she will have Redgrave’s support. But when it comes to making a recommendation, to saying call it a day or urging her to go on until 2016, he will not commit himself. What he thinks does not matter, he insists: the critical thing is what her heart tells her.
“It’s about what she wants. Katherine has been speaking to some of the coaches and some of the prominent athletes who are on the team, and asking their opinion. It doesn’t matter what they think.
“It doesn’t matter what the coach thinks. It doesn’t matter who you may be rowing with or not rowing with. It’s how you feel and what you want to do. If the urge to compete is still burning in her heart, then it’s an easy decision.
“You can read it in two ways, asking other people. Is she asking other people for the justification of what she’s already decided she’s going to do? Or is she in two minds?
“If she’s in two minds, don’t do it. Simple as that.
“I think Katherine would find it pretty tough coming back. It is a tough process of having a year off. I never had a year off in my career. She’s been doing some exercise, she has been ticking over, but that’s different from getting back into international racing. She’s got the ability, but has she got the heart for it? That’s what it comes down to, and there’s only one person who can make that decision.”
At this point, a lady enters the Raeburn Room and informs us, firmly but politely, that we must now make our way to the Playfair Library for dinner. The smoked salmon, the cream of cauliflower soup, the honey and lavender scented fillet of lamb with wilted kale and caraway rosti: they’re all waiting. As is the Princess Royal.
Better go then, eh? But as we climb the stairs, there is time for one more question, so I ask which of those five Olympic gold medals meant most to him at the time, and which he is proudest of now.
“For me, it was about the one I was trying to achieve, not the one I’d got,” he says. “Once I’d got one, it was the effort, then on to the next. Yeah, proud of doing it, but that’s done and dusted, it’s the next one.
“If you ask me which is my favourite out of the five, it’s really difficult. I’m a father of three. Which is your special child? Which is the better one? They all perform differently; they’re all different characters.
“Each Games has its own character. So they’re all pretty equal. But if I’m really twisted, it’s got to be the first one. Because you have this dream to become Olympic champion, and the first one is that dream becoming reality. With the others, you’ve done it before – why can’t you do it again?”
Pudding was tarte tatin.