Stunning Olympic Moments: Derek Redmond and His Dad Finish 400M Race
What made this moment at the 1992 Games special was it brought into focus not just one athlete...
An anguished Derek Redmond is helped towards the finish by his father after suffering an injury in the 400m semi at the Barcelona Games. Animation: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian.
Olympians could fill a pool with their tears, on a quadrennial basis. The nature of the competition ensures that however many dream of glory, most will only experience disappointment. At that moment, the bitter taste not just of a single defeat but of four years of wasted effort can simply be too much for some to handle. More than that, quite a few athletes can't even win without tears. But no Olympic emotional outburst is ever likely to dislodge Derek Redmond's in the minds not just of Britons but of anyone old enough to remember the 1992 Games. What made this moment special was that it brought into focus not just the near-heroic desperation of a single professional athlete but a much more universal theme: the nature of parenthood.
"I still get people coming up to me in the street because of what happened," said Redmond in February 1993, six months after the 1992 Olympics. "But as nice as it is to know that they care, I would like to put it all behind me and not be remembered just for that."
He never had a chance. Redmond travelled to two Olympics and both ended with injury-induced heartache, once in the most public circumstances. For all his ability as an athlete – and he was considered likely to win a medal in Barcelona – he will forever be remembered for tearfully completing his 400m semi-final using his father as a crutch. His body never gave him the opportunity to redefine the way the world perceived him: two years after the Barcelona Games, following an 11th operation on his achilles tendon, his athletics career was over. This was his last race of any significance.
Redmond had missed the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh with a hamstring injury, and withdrew from the 1988 Seoul Olympics minutes before his first heat having failed to recover from tendinitis, having had two painkilling injections that morning in an effort to make it on to the track. The following summer, still plagued by injuries, he came close to giving up sport altogether. What the world witnessed in 1992 was a man who had been continually brought low by injury simply refusing to submit yet again.
His body had given him some hope: in the first round Redmond had run his quickest 400m for four years. "I was feeling absolutely 100% before the race," he told me in 2006. "I'd had two really good rounds without even trying and the night before the semi-final I'd talked with my father and my coach and we'd decided I was going to push a bit harder and try to get a good lane for the final.
"On the day everything went smooth. I got a really good start, which was unusual for me. I think I was the first to react to the pistol. My normal tactics were to get round the first bend and then put the burners on for 30m, accelerate hard. But by the time I'd got upright I was almost round the bend, much further than usual, and I decided not to bother, to save my energy in case I had to fight for the line. About three strides later I felt a pop."
It was his hamstring. Redmond collapsed to the floor, clutching his leg. Most athletes would have been quietly carried off the track and towards medical attention, but as the Red Cross workers approached Redmond instead pushed himself back to his feet. "I got up quicker than I got out of my blocks," he said. "I said to myself: 'There's no way I'm going to be stretchered out of these Olympics.' I didn't know where I was. I really, really believed I could still qualify."
Bizarrely, the reason Redmond first started limping around the track was a belief that if he limped fast enough he might still overtake four people and qualify for the final. "Believe me, at the time I thought I was running," he said later. "It's only when I see the playback I realise I wasn't actually running very quick at all."
Meanwhile, Redmond's father Jim was fighting his way on to the track. "When I saw Derek hit the deck, I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me," he told the Guardian. "I'm very involved in his training so I knew just how fit he was. All I can remember after that is telling the coach, Tony Hadley [not the lead singer in Spandau Ballet], to look after my camera. The next thing I knew, I was on the track."
Jim told his son to stop, in case the injury might heal in time for him to compete in the relay. Derek refused. "Well then," Jim said, "we're going to finish this together." And finish it they did, slowly, and with the younger man's anguish becoming visibly greater with every pace.
Back in Northampton Redmond's mother, Jennie, was watching events unfold on television, weeping. She later told the press that the last time she had seen her son so unhappy was when he didn't get the bike he wanted for his sixth birthday. Redmond's 28-year-old sister Karen was nine months pregnant; as she watched her brother's world collapse she started to feel contractions.
Back in Barcelona, father and son batted away a succession of officials who tried and failed to convince them to clear the track. Jim, it turned out, was as much bouncer as buttress. "I'd never heard my dad using four-letter words," Derek said the following day. "I learned a few new ones."
"Even now, it's hard to say how or why I did it," said Jim. "It was a spontaneous reaction, as if I had seen him hit by a car. I certainly didn't run down to help him finish – if anything it was to stop him. I could accept the fact that my son was injured, but not that he was going to carry on in pain, causing himself even greater damage."
"After I crossed the line I was taken to the doctors and I was crying like a baby the whole time," Redmond told me. "I had no idea how the crowd had reacted until I saw the video – they were the last thing on my mind. It could have gone one of two ways: they'd either think 'what a complete prat' or 'good on him'. Luckily they chose the second one."
Not everyone. Though the Redmonds were pictured on the front page of the following day's newspaper, the Guardian's athletics correspondent at the time, John Rodda, who was covering his ninth and last Olympic Games for the paper, decided that the incident merited only a mention in the 18th and penultimate paragraph of his main report, calling it "a display of histrionics which the crowd saw as courage but must have bewildered many".
Most observers, though, were genuinely moved by what they witnessed. On his way from the stadium Redmond met Linford Christie, Britain's team captain. The pair were far from friendly, and their enmity had become public after Christie criticised the 4x400m relay team that won gold at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. "These guys are not my sort of guys," he said. "I don't like their attitude." Christie added that the four – of whom Redmond was one – should have toned down their celebrations because they had "mucked up" their individual events. Redmond replied: "There's a saying going around among the athletes that Linford is the most balanced runner in Britain because he's got a chip on both shoulders. For once in his life he was upstaged in Tokyo and he didn't like it."
But that day, in the bowels of Barcelona's Estadi Olímpic, Christie approached his team-mate and the pair wordlessly embraced. "Tears started and we both broke down," said Redmond. "I know it sounds soppy but it was Mills and Boon sort of stuff. I've changed my views of him completely. It shows that this sport isn't just about coming here and making money."
Perhaps not, but as it happens Redmond's courage that day allowed him to enjoy a second career as a motivational speaker. That wasn't the only lasting effect of those injury-plagued years, however: in Barcelona the swimmer Sharron Davies, another British athlete who had endured a disappointing Games, sought out Redmond to express her sympathy. The pair married two years later (but divorced in 2000). More long-lasting, it transpired, are the chronic stomach ulcers induced by Redmond's use of painkilling medication. "I would never encourage anyone to do what I did," he said, "but I didn't need encouragement. I went out and did it myself."
At the 1992 Olympics the athletes had access to a rudimentary computerised messaging system. This allowed them to log on to one of the Olympic computers, which were distributed around the athletes' village, and send someone else a message that they would be able to pick up when they next logged on – a kind of electronic mail, if you will. It's never really caught on. Anyway, in the days after the race Redmond received scores of messages from his fellow competitors, including this from a Candian competitor he had never met:
"Long after the names of the medallists have faded from our minds, you will be remembered for having finished, for having tried so hard, for having a father to demonstrate the strength of his love for his son. I thank you, and I will always remember your race and I will always remember you – the purest, most courageous example of grit and determination I have seen."
It is as true today as it was 21 years ago.
What happened next
Two years after the Barcelona Olympics, Redmond was told that his athletics career was over and that he would never be able to represent his country in sport. Redmond defied the odds yet again securing a place in the GB basketball team – he sent a signed photo of the team to the surgeon that had ruled him out of professional sport. He later went on to take part in rugby union but fell short of qualifying for the England Sevens team having reached the first division with Coventry. Redmond also won Celebrity Gladiators before becoming assistant referee to John Anderson in the early series of Gladiators. Redmond is now the director of development for sprint and hurdles for UK Athletics and also takes pride in motivational speaking on the conference circuit – talking about his inspirational moment in the Olympics and other successes.
What Redmond said
"Everything I had worked for was finished. I hated everybody. I hated the world. I hated hamstrings. I hated it all. I felt so bitter that I was injured again. I told myself I had to finish. I kept hopping round. Then, with 100 metres to go, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my old man."
What Redmond's father, Jim, said
"I'm the proudest father alive, I'm prouder of him than I would have been if he had won the gold medal. It took a lot of guts for him to do what he did."