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Duncan Hopwood

How to win. The secrets of an Olympic legend.

January 13, 2016

As told to me (and a room full of other people) by Steve Cram, and if you’re asking yourself who he is, read on and be prepared to be amazed.

How many people have you met who were ever undeniably the best in the world at anything? Steve Cram was, alongside Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, one of England’s golden trio of world beating, medal hauling, middle distance wonders, an astonishing triumvirate who lit up the Eighties.

The youngest of the three, Cram blew the top off the record books when in one astonishing summer, he set three world best times at three distances in just 19 days.

Cram’s northeastern accent is still familiar to TV watchers of the London Marathon and athletics. Meanwhile, Seb, now Lord, Coe refuelled his public profile, first as an MP and second as the driving force behind the 2012 Olympics. Ovett, the odd triplet, remains a mystery, at least as far as my knowledge goes.

So here we are in a south Leicestershire hotel, an audience of invited business guests, ears straining for nuggets of wisdom. What can Steve Cram tell us about how to be world beaters?

Lesson 1: Fear is your friend (sort of)

Responding to a particularly interesting question from the floor (modesty prevents me revealing who asked it), Steve tells us how to cope with nerves. Many times, he’s spent sleepless nights before races, and there was never one where afterwards, however well or badly it went, he didn’t feel a huge sense of relief. There’s nothing wrong with nerves, he confides. Whatever you’re doing, nerves show you care. If you don’t care, you won’t perform at your best. The same attitude to butterflies in the tummy will stand you in good stead for your next presentation or important meeting.

2 Prepare to win

As I know from my own comparatively modest, long distance running exploits, your teeth stop chattering when your legs start moving. But Steve tells us that in the more tactical middle distance scenario, you have the added luxury of nerves during the race. After a slow first couple of laps in a 1500 metres, should you head to the front or hang back? It goes without saying that training and experience are prerequisites to success in athletics, and anything else. Here’s where preparation counts again. If you’ve done the training, says Steve, you know what you’re capable of doing so you can make a sensible judgement about tactics. In a negotiation, being prepared for all eventualities and having a plan may not ensure you win on every occasion but they will make it easier to make the best decision at any given turn of events.

3 Set targets and learn from the best

In his role with GB Sport, Cram and colleagues set about reversing the dismal polarity of the country’s medal showing in Olympic Games, a feat they memorably achieved in Sydney and then eclipsed in the hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck tingling 2012 London games. Targets were set for achievement in measurable areas for each sport with funding tied to it. When Cram and co spotted one sport doing particularly well, they asked those responsible to share their secrets. Needless to say for cycling fans, topping the table of high achievers with secrets to share was His Intensity Himself Sir Dave Brailsford, whose mantra of success through the aggregation of minute factors has over spilled into the business world, as taught by my friend, David Durkin, and other management training gurus. When Cram and the team began their quest, you would not find Team GB on page one of the medal table. Page two then? Nope. Page three, scroll down, and languishing at the bottom, there we were. They set a goal to finish fifth, and, dare to dream, what if they could beat Australia? They did.

4 To be successful at anything, find someone who’s been there and done that

Cram has no coaching qualifications but when a young woman came along from his home town and asked him to help her fulfil her athletic dreams, as a friend of the family, he couldn’t refuse. As she progressed, she revealed that she wanted to make it onto the GB team for the Olympics. “What are you going to say?” asks Steve. “My brain says no but my heart says yes?” He is taking on the job.

5 Embrace the technology

When Coe, Cram and Ovett were sending sparks spiking on the tartan tracks of Europe and beyond, it was hard to imagine anyone could be faster, let alone themselves. Coe’s epoch rending 1 min 41 secs is nearly 18mph, and took decades to beat. As the treadmill at your gym is probably set in kilometres, that would be 28 on the speed dial! And I mean that exclamation mark. (In the unlikely event, that your treadmill dial actually does go up to 28, don’t even think about trying.) Even so, Cram thinks he and the duelling duo would all have been faster if they had been in action today. The main reasons for that are advances in sport science, not least the technology. His protégée sleeps in a tent that simulates living at altitude to pump up the number of oxygen-carrying red cells in her blood stream.

6. Want it more than the next guy (or girl)

Steve tells the story of Lord Coe’s epic fight to win the 2012 Olympics for London. It’s the end of the bidding process, and the French, hot favourites to win the prize for Paris, are settling down to celebrate a job well done. Meanwhile, Coe is setting up a series of one to ones between members of the International Olympic Committee and the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who he has arranged to fly in from a foreign trip. Ushering each of the IOC bigwigs into a private room, Coe lets Blair work his charm with promises to make London great, which as it turns out means there is at least one promise that the ex PM did keep. The next day you can sense the taste in the devastated French contingent’s collective mouth, and it isn’t just the sour hangover of too much champagne, as they realise they did all the work but didn’t do the all important extra bit to take their bid over the line. Coe, supremely talented, intelligent and above all, determined to win, did.