Before the Tokyo Games, former British Olympic Champions tell Telegraph Sport about the moment their life changed forever — and why so many of them keep their gold medals in their underwear drawer.
‘People don’t forget you’
Sally Gunnell won the 400m hurdles at Barcelona in 1992 – the first women’s medal on the track for Great Britain in 28 years. She keeps her gold medal in a small box at home near Brighton.
Gunnell beat Sandra Farmer-Patrick by just under half a second
Credit: Russell Cheyne, The Telegraph
I think I only managed to deliver at the Olympics because I didn’t realise what the consequences were going to be.
I guess an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate. That’s what I trained for. That’s what I dreamt about. I didn’t dream about breaking world records, or winning the world champs; it was always the Olympics. It’s still the pinnacle of every athlete’s sporting career.
It still gives me a thrill. The thing I enjoy now is the stories about where people were on that night. People remember their mum and dad shouting at the television, or being in a bar and watching it on holiday. Someone told me that there was a massive traffic jam on the motorway and everyone was stationary listening to it on the radio. When I won, people were tooting their horns and shouting out the window.
The Olympic gold means much more now than it did at the time, which sounds silly. At the time, you think you’ll be Olympic champion for four years and then it’ll be gone. But people don’t forget you. Being Olympic champion doesn’t go away.
Nobody tells you that you’ll be showing that medal to people nearly 30 years later! People want to know how heavy they are. It looks like the bronze medal now because all the gold has come off the back and the ribbon is looking a bit tatty.
Gunnell's gold, second left, sits among her collection of medals from major championships
‘To some, it’s a piece of Kryptonite’
Greg Searle won the men’s coxed pair alongside brother Jonny at Barcelona in 1992. He also took bronze in the coxless four in 1996, was fourth in the men’s pair in 2000 and came out of retirement for bronze in the men’s eight at London 2012. He keeps his gold medal in a Hampton School sock.
I did keep my medal in my sock drawer, before finding somewhere a bit safer. As for the Hampton School rugby sock — those were my lucky socks. I wore a pair for the final.
The medal itself is a physical representation of what me, Jonny, and cox Garry Herbert did — but it’s also just an object on the end of a bit of ribbon. I had one colleague who used to borrow the medal so that he could have it in his pocket when he gave presentations. To him it was like a piece of Kryptonite; it gave him strength. It doesn’t have that same power on me.
To say that sport is all about winning is the sort of thing that comes from a t— who’s never played sport at any level — but it’s not very clever going into a race saying that you’re going to be happy if you come second.
When I die I’ll probably have to split the two bronzes and one gold between the two children – but I think they’ll both want the 2012 bronze, because they were there to see it.
Greg, left, and Jonny with their cox Garry Herbert after winning by just over one second in the Olympic final
Credit: David Cannon/Getty
Searle's gold medal, seen with a green ribbon, was previously stored in a sock drawer
‘Why do you get a medal for coming third?’
Jonny Searle won the men’s coxed pair alongside brother Greg, above, at Barcelona in 1992. He also took bronze in the coxless four in 1996. He keeps his various medals in different places.
The gold medal is in a draw at home, but I don’t know where the bronze medal is. That might tell you all you need to know. The disappointment of the bronze was a big thing for a long time. But I can see now that we were actually one second faster in 1996. On a completely different day it could have been a different outcome.
I think because you get something for coming third, it’s a bit confusing. It’s a great achievement but if you get a medal for coming third, why don’t you get a medal for coming fourth, fifth, sixth or even seventh?
I suppose I’m aware of the gold medal as a thing but I don’t think of myself as an Olympic champion. I’ve taken down the pictures from my wall because I don’t want people to think I’m a really unfit Olympic champion!
‘I don’t think of myself as Olympic champion’
Mark Lewis-Francis won the men’s 4x100m at Athens 2004. Now an ambassador for the Commonwealth Games, he keeps his gold medal in a sideboard at home.
Every young athlete wants to be Olympic champion. When it actually happened, I don’t think it hit home until I retired. It was only afterwards that I began to appreciate that Olympic medals mean that little bit more. While I was still competing it was just another medal.
When I go into schools and show them the video of 2004, I still get goosebumps. In that year, we were ranked fifth or sixth in the world. To win the Olympic final after making big mistakes in the semi-final shows how much we believed in ourselves. We weren’t the fastest runners on the track, but we had confidence in our relay skills.
I don’t think about myself as an Olympic champion now though. It’s a memory that I’ll always hold close to my heart. But when you retire the real world hits home and you have to get your head around new goals.
Lewis-Francis held off Maurice Green of the USA on the anchor leg of the Olympic final, winning by 0.01 seconds
Lewis-Francis says the gold medal still has the power to inspire
Credit: Dale Cherry
‘I bought a replica off eBay for £12’
Richard Faulds won the men’s double trap at Sydney 2000 – one of the five Olympics at which he competed. He has a fake medal on display at the shooting school he runs but keeps his real gold medal in a secret location.
I still think about myself as an Olympic champion. I think I have 23 world titles and a few Europeans. The Olympic gold is pride of place though. There are other people who have won multiple world championships in non-Olympic events but I’m telling you now, they’d swap it all for that one medal that I’ve got.
My gold has a huge sense of meaning to me. The amount of people who want to hold it, or be photographed with it or put it on gives me a real sense of pride.
I have a trophy cabinet but the Olympic gold isn’t in there. I wouldn’t want to put the real one on display in case someone took a fancy to it. I have a replica, which is on display at the shooting school, which I bought off Ebay for 12 quid. It’s a brilliant replica.
I was going to get a real replica made a few years ago and got in touch with the royal mint in Sydney, which is where they made the medals. They were happy to reproduce a cast of the medal but they’d run out of ribbons and couldn’t get any more produced. About two weeks later, I checked on eBay and you could buy a full set of gold, silver and bronze for 36 quid. I’ve got the replica gold framed behind glass in the clubhouse. Unless you took it out you’d never know.
Faulds won one of Team GB's 11 gold medals at the Sydney Games
Credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
‘My gold medal has been found in the bread bin’
Duncan Goodhew won the 100m breaststroke at Moscow 1980. Now an ambassador for a variety of sport charities, he keeps his gold medal in a safe.
My gold medal has been all over the place. It’s been found in the bread bin occasionally, but it’s still out and about a lot. I think I’m on my third ribbon. I take it out whenever possible — but not because I’m deeply insecure and need to have it in my pocket! It’s because I believe it’s one of those things that should be in people’s hands as much as possible. It inspires people. They know that the Olympic Games changes lives.
I still love my sport and what it does for me. The medal was just the cherry on the top of what sport gave to me. In some senses it’s been a distraction, but a very welcome one.
The journey to the Olympics helped me to create a life plan. There’s not an hour that passes, more than 40 years later, that hasn’t been influenced by that journey and those Olympics. I’ve done the most extraordinary things throughout my life as a result of it.
Goodhew was one of five British gold medal-winners at the 1980 Games
Credit: S&G and Barratts
‘Pretending that medals don’t matter is wrong’
Ben Hunt-Davis won gold in the men’s eight at Sydney 2000. Now a high-performance coach, he keeps his gold medal in a drawer at home. It is stored in a sock.
If you go back to 2000 our national identity around sport was as a bunch of losers who tried hard. That’s changed and that’s a good thing. If we were to go back to thinking that medals don’t matter and everyone just having a nice time I think that in 20 years we’d be worrying about the national psyche. Pretending that medals don’t matter is wrong.
I think about my medal differently to how I think about other people’s. I look at other people and think that they’re amazing but I look at us and think that, yes, we trained quite hard and we were tall — but we weren’t anything special.
Our approach and what we did for the four years previously were what really made the difference. The medal is the end result and without it I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
The men's eight take victory in 2000, a feat replicated by the eight in 2016
Hunt-Davies now works as a performance coach and author – roles he could not perform without having had Olympic success
Credit: Geoff Pugh
‘There’s no magic to winning an Olympic medal’
Sarah Ayton was one of the ‘three blondes in a boat’ who won sailing’s Yngling class at Athens 2004 and again at Beijing 2008. Now a coach and personal trainer, she keeps her medals in a sock drawer.
There’s something funny about being Olympic champion: it’s something that stays with you every day and there’s this empowerment that comes with it.
I still feel very proud and very privileged to have had the opportunity to go to the Olympics — and then actually win — but the lessons I learned are what I share with my children. It’s given me a real sense of confidence and the ability to back myself.
For me, if there’s anything I want to do, I feel that I can. If you want to win an Olympic medal there’s no magic to it, other than having desire and putting the hours in.
Winning a medal gave me a moment of knowing that I’d given it everything and I was the best at what I did. But I don’t need to see my medals to be reminded of it. If someone wants to have a look at them that’s fine, but I don’t get them out. It would be a bit arrogant to have the medals on display, wouldn’t it?
Ayton, top, on her way to victory in Beijing, alongside Pippa Wilson, left, and Sarah Webb
Credit: Clive Mason/Getty
‘I will lie on my deathbed and think of myself as an Olympic athlete’
Andrew Lindsay won gold in the men’s eight at Sydney 2000. Now the CEO of a telecommunications business, his gold medal lives in the bottom of a sock drawer.
Being an Olympic champion is inherently who I am. Much more than what I do now and have done since — apart from parenthood. I will lie on my deathbed and think of myself as an Olympic athlete before I think of myself as a chief executive.
I think back to my Olympic career a lot. In terms of anecdotes for business it is entirely relevant. Mind you, hindsight is a wonderful thing because it was pretty grim and miserable at the time.
Yes, the pursuit of medals is a bit excessive, but I don’t think it’s a problem. Should the money go to better causes? No. Because we all need a positive bost and nobody can tell me that the London Olympics didn’t give British society a boost.
Unlike some of his crew members, Lindsay only travelled to one Olympics — returning with a gold medal
Credit: Tom Pilston
‘One medal has teeth marks in it and is a bit bent’
Shirley Robertson won sailing’s Europe class at Sydney 2000 and Yngling class at Athens 2004, alongside Sarah Ayton (above). Now working in the media, she keeps her gold medals in her knicker drawer.
I’ve been into homes where the medals are on display and I think ‘How weird’. Some people think it’s because I’m not proud of my golds, but that’s not true. It’s more that winning the medals was a moment in time. The emotions do sometimes come flooding back, but I don’t want to be reminded of it in my everyday life. There was a time when my family thought it was cool that I won Olympic golds, but now they just roll their eyes.
If people ask to see the medals then I get them out of the knicker drawer. They’re in a bit of a state. They’ve really deteriorated. Initially of course they went with me to nightclubs. Then the taxi driver in Sydney bit one. So that one has big teeth marks in it and it’s a bit bent.
The medal ceremony, on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney, with the bridge behind in the rain, was the best moment of my entire career. It means so much and I suppose, as years go on you think, “Well, it’s just a sailing race and it’s just sport,” but at that time it’s much more than that.
No one’s making much money from being an Olympian so it’s a big deal to devote everything you have towards this one thing.
Robertson on her way to solo gold in 2004, after winning as part of the three-person Yngling team four years previously
‘Being Olympic champion is integral to who I am’
Kieran West was part of the victorious men’s eight at Sydney 2000. Now the strategy director at Bupa, he was moving house at the time of this interview and was unsure which box the medal was in.
In general, it’s nice to know that there are very few situations as stressful as sitting on the start line at the Olympic games and knowing that the last few years and quite a lot of the rest of your life will be defined by the next few minutes. Once you’ve dealt with that sort of pressure, there’s not many pressure situations you can’t cope with.
It’s an amazing feeling to be absolutely on top of your game at something. We managed to produce the best race of our life at the time when we most needed to do it.
The best way I can describe being an Olympic champion is as a feeling that’s always there, but not overtly. I wouldn’t say that I define myself by winning the Olympic final, but it’s an integral part of who I am.
I’m extremely proud of my gold medal but I don’t need to see it and I don’t need to display it. I won and I know I won.
One piece of Olympic memorabilia that I do have on display is a poster that Team GB had made up with a silhouette of a person holding an Olympic torch and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. The poster said ‘pursue your dream’. We crossed that out – because pursuing your dream is not really what it’s all about – and wrote ‘achieve your dream.’”
‘Gold medals have a kind of aura’
Mark Hunter won the lightweight double sculls with Zac Purchase in Beijing 2008. He also took silver, by half a second, at London 2012. Now a rowing ambassador and motivational speaker, he keeps his gold medal in a drawer at home.
You might see medals on TV, or read articles about Olympians, but to hold an Olympic medal is a totally different experience. They have a kind of aura, especially when you touch them.
When I was 14 I got to hold one when Steve Redgrave came to give a talk at my local club. It blew my mind and made me want to have my own. He told me that I could try his medals on if I wanted and I said no, because I only wanted to wear one when it was my own. The medal from Beijing represents that dream I had as a 14-year old.
The silver medal from London is very different. We nearly pulled off a great escape, but the heartbreak was not being able to sing the national anthem with 30,000 people at Eton Dorney. That’s the thing about sport: you can’t go back and do it again.
When I was trying to deal with the aftereffects of 2012 I had nobody to speak to. We need to get better in that area. London 2012 stayed with me for a long time. For years I would wake up thinking that I had a chance to go and do it again — but I didn’t. I’ve been able to compartmentalise it and move on. I’m a dad now and other things take precedence.
Hunter and Purchase on the finish line in 2008, where they beat the Greek pair by just under one second
The medal that represents Hunter's dream fulfilled now lives….with his underwear
Credit: David Rose
‘I’m not blinkered by any bulls—’
Steve Trapmore is another member of the crew that won the men’s eight at Sydney 2000. Now a rowing coach, he also keeps his gold medal in a sock drawer at home.
I don’t think of myself as an Olympic champion every day but through my work in the coaching world I’ve realised the gravitas of the achievement and how many people are trying to achieve the same thing. As you get older, it helps to put it into context. I still find it hard to believe that we won it.
Rowing in an eight is very different to Usain Bolt going and winning an individual gold. We were just a bunch of normal blokes who trained hard, came together as a team and got the result. It’s one of the least individual medals going.
I know what a gold medal means and how it feels to achieve that. There’s not many people who can say what it feels like to be on the start line of an Olympic final and achieve the pinnacle. When you’re trying to get people to that same spot, knowing what it’s like gives me perspective. I’m not blinkered by any bulls—. I know what it takes.
‘I’ve always tried to ignore my medals’
Andrew Triggs-Hodge won two golds in the men’s coxless fours — at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 — then won the men’s eight at London 2012. Now working for London Youth Rowing, he keeps his gold medals in clothes cupboard, in a purse from the Wimbledon Royal Box in 2016.
I’ve always tried to ignore my medals really, because if you want to succeed in anything you can’t rest on your laurels. There’s only so much celebrating you can do. And celebration doesn’t help pay the bills. You have to rebuild your persona, your ego, to be able to achieve something again.
What most people learn at 21, when they leave uni and have to stand on their own two feet, is what athletes learn when they retire. You have to enter the real world at 35, when you’re less agile mentally and there’s a lot more weight on your shoulders. It’s a really hard journey and the medals play no part in that.
There are so many Olympic celebrities out there but I’ll never be able to walk that course. The medals will never play a public role for me; they’ll never produce an income.
My favourite memories are of the training. Being with friends. Building a team. Life was a lot simpler as an athlete. I’d definitely do it all over again, but it’s a bygone life.
Triggs-Hodge, front, won medals at three consecutive Games
Credit: Julian Andrews
Triggs-Hodge is one of only 18 British athletes who have won three or more gold medals
Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley