Olympian Roger Black on Guildford life, Team GB and the Surrey Hills
PUBLISHED: 11:33 15 August 2012 | UPDATED: 12:13 30 April 2014
Britain’s best ever 400m runner, Roger Black shared his expertise as an ambassador for the British Olympic team this summer. Here, the Guildford-based athlete outlines the pressures our hopefuls will faced and celebrates Surrey’s role at the heart of the cycling action. And away from the sporting world, he explains why he likes nothing better than a relaxing walk in the Surrey Hills with his family
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2012
Interview by Angela Wintle
As a former Olympic medallist, Roger Black knows better than most the pressures our athletes will be facing. Not only will they be competing against the best in the world, but they’ll be doing so on their home turf – including here in Surrey for some of the cycling events – and carrying the hopes and expectations of a nation.
“In general, competing at home gives you a big advantage and most of our athletes will rise to the occasion,” says Roger, who lives with his family near Guildford. “But some will struggle and underperform because of the unprecedented expectation.”
As an ambassador for Team GB, Roger, 44, will be advising them on how to cope. “They’ll be under a lot of pressure and sometimes they’ll just need to talk to someone who’s seen it, done it and got the medals,” he continues. “The Olympics will represent the culmination of years of preparation. Those with the best medal chances will have spent months rigidly sticking to disciplined regimes that control everything from what they eat and drink to when they sleep. But nothing worth having comes easily.”
Roger, however, expects few surprises at London 2012. “In certain sports, such as rowing, sailing and the cycling here in Surrey, where Mark Cavendish is hoping to repeat last year’s victory in the test race, we should do well. In my sport, athletics, we’re in pretty good shape, too, and the names to look out for will be long-distance runner Mo Farah, heptathlete Jessica Ennis, triple jumper Phillips Idowu and the world’s 400m hurdles champion, Dai Greene.
“But the Olympics has changed so much since my day. This will be the first Games available in HD, for example, with the red button letting you choose which sport you want to watch. And technology is making it possible to control nearly every detail of an athlete’s preparation, though the beauty of it all is that in the end it comes down to you, your body, your guts and your determination. That’s what the Olympics does. It tests you man on man.”
Move to Guildford
Roger is speaking from the home he shares with his wife Julia and their six-year-old twins, George and Max. With his clean-cut good looks and smooth presentation skills, he remains a poster-boy for the sport, but relishes his time away from the limelight.
“I originally moved to Guildford in 1995 to prepare for the Atlanta Olympics because my coach lived in Surrey,” he says. “I also lived in Farnham for a while, but moved back to Guildford because my wife grew up in the area.
“I love Surrey and it’s a privilege to live here. We enjoy the most beautiful countryside in the Surrey Hills and we love going for walks as a family. St Martha’s Hill is a favourite spot, and the old church, built on the site of an Iron Age fort, commands stunning views of the North Downs and Green Sands. Our kids also love playing in the neighbouring Chantry Wood.
“Similarly, Guildford is one of the best town centres in the country and we enjoy shopping and visiting the local cinema. Surrey is also blessed with superb sporting facilities, from the Spectrum, Guildford’s leisure centre, where I trained as an athlete – to the £35m Surrey Sports Park at the University of Surrey, which awarded me an honorary degree last year.”
All that training certainly paid off, and Roger remains our best ever 400m runner with 15 major championship trophies to prove it, including European, Commonwealth and World Championship gold medals. But he nearly didn’t become an athlete at all. Born in Gosport, he seemed destined for medicine, but was told he would never make the grades. He decided to rise to the challenge anyway, an early sign of his single-mindedness, but failed maths.
He was devastated, but that misfortune changed his life. He took a year off, joined an athletics club and discovered he was rather good at running. In time, he got that maths A-level and a coveted place at Southampton University, but the track proved too strong a pull and within a year he was the 400m British and European junior champion.
He laughs when I suggest he came from nowhere. “Yes, it was great. And running is one of the few sports where that can happen because it’s a very natural thing. I was born to run fast. But I didn’t know I was Olympic fast.”
An Olympic medal
That Olympic test – the highlight of his career – finally came when he won silver in the 400m final in Atlanta in 1996, finishing behind the formidable Michael Johnson. “When all is said and done, the Olympics is what it’s all about,” says Roger. “And I did it when I was 30, when it looked like I might finish my career without an Olympic medal.”
Another career high was coming second in the 400m in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo to Antonio Pettigrew, who later admitted using performance enhancing drugs. Though Pettigrew, who committed suicide last year, never acknowledged using them at this period, it inevitably raised questions. “If he was taking drugs in Tokyo, he robbed me of being world champion,” says Roger.
But the race that really captured the public imagination was the 4x400m relay triumph, also in Tokyo, in which he competed alongside fellow teammates Kriss Akabusi, Derek Raymond and John Regis. There had been little expectation of gold, but in a masterstroke dreamt up by Roger and Kriss at the eleventh hour, they changed the running order and confused the US so much they were beaten for the first time in the World Championships.
Nevertheless, Roger’s career had its dark moments, too. At his peak, he suffered from the debilitating Epstein-Barr virus, which slowed his times, and he was dogged by injury. But perhaps his biggest career challenge has been reinventing himself since his retirement. “You spend 15 years focused on one thing and then it’s over, but I’ve done okay,” he says, modestly, of his many achievements since leaving the track.
Now a regular on our TV screens, he has enjoyed a stint in the BBC commentary box, as well as appearances on popular shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity MasterChef.
Meanwhile, his other main focus has been running the Surrey-based business he set up with fellow Olympian Steve Backley, specialising in motivational speaking. “We felt we had many athletics experiences that could be transferred to the business world,” he says. “Success is not just about talent. I was talented at running, but it didn’t win me the Olympic medal. It’s about application. And in times of recession, we need to deliver more than we’ve ever done.”
New cycling capital
The same might be said of the Olympics. Roger, who will be appearing regularly on our screens during the coverage, says it’s a huge honour for the UK to be hosting the world’s largest sporting event. And Surrey, of course, will be at the centre of the action.
“Not only do we have the Olympic torch relay coming right through the heart of our county, but also the cycling events, too, with the time trials at Hampton Court and the road races coming to Box Hill – the men’s race including an incredible nine circuits of the hill. It’s going to be a very exciting time with the eyes of the world on Surrey,” he says.
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get to Box Hill myself because of my responsibilities as a Team GB ambassador, but I certainly hope to catch the action on television. And with the Tour of Britain also finishing in Surrey this autumn, it looks like one legacy of the Olympic Games is that we really could become the cycling capital of Britain.
“Our children will never forget London 2012. But, best of all, I’m sure we’ll be able to look back as a nation and be proud that we did a great job.”
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: Al Vicolo in the heart of Guildford – a fantastic Sardinian family restaurant and the best kept secret in Surrey (until now...). I’ve never tasted a more authentic risotto.
Shop: Most of our furnishings were bought at Bardoe and Appel in Tunsgate, Guildford.
It stocks a stylish collection of rustic furniture and accessories for the home, specialising
in a neutral palette reminiscent of the south of France.
View: The view from the top of St Martha’s Hill, near Guildford. We always stop at our favourite bench near the church to look out over Newlands Corner and other parts of the Surrey Hills. You can also see our village, which is nice.
Place to chill: Once a week, I meet up with four mates at my local pub for a few beers.
Place to visit: RHS Garden Wisley, the flagship of the Royal Horticultural Society, which boasts richly planted borders, luscious rose gardens and a state-of-the-art glasshouse showcasing its world-class plant collection. Our kids love it.