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a sportsman’s tale

I was born on 15 June 1963, born and bred in Cardiff, and I went to Greenway Junior School. My earliest memory is of playing baseball … and rugby. I found that I was reasonably good at rugby and, more importantly, I enjoyed it. So, rugby was my first love. I went to Rumney High School where I had a very influential PE teacher, a guy called David Williams who was very keen for me to go as far as I could in sport. My parents, on the other hand, wanted me to get my head into my books. I remember my father saying famously, “You’ll never get anything out of sport. You need to get yourself some qualifications and go and get a proper job”. That’s the sort of background I had, tension between my natural aptitude to get involved in sport and my parents saying, “You need to study harder”.

Some people say that “Luck rides on the shoulders of the prepared”. I was at our school sports’ day in Rumney High School. I happened to be walking past the start line when the person who was supposed to be running the hurdles hadn’t shown up. The PE teacher said, “Will you run and get a point?”. A few minutes later, I was the school’s hurdles champion, one of those pivotal moments when things changed, just because I was in the right place at the right time.
I was brought up in the age of Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Gerald Davies, and I used to go down to Cardiff Rugby Club and stand on the terraces and watch these great players. Rugby was in the blood. I got to about fourteen or fifteen and, almost inadvertently, started doing a little bit of athletics and that’s when Mr Williams really got behind me. I won a couple of County Championships and a Welsh Schools’ title. Then, when I got to the age of eighteen, I had a Final Welsh Rugby Trial. I was already in the GB Junior Athletics team. I had a choice to make. I didn’t get into the Welsh Schools’ Rugby Team – captained at the time by Stuart Barnes who was in Bassaleg High School – so I decided to throw all of my eggs into the athletics basket.
Thirty years ago, people used to combine the two sports. JJ Williams had an athletics as well as a rugby career, but I just felt that, if I was going to be a proper athlete, I needed to start training properly, six days a week, and if you’re training six days a week for athletics, there isn’t a great deal of time left for another sport.
I look back at my sporting career now and think, “Oh, that was pretty significant”. I remember when I was in the sixth form playing for the school team against the teachers and I had a reasonably good game, and at the end Mr Williams said to me, “You could have a first class rugby career!”. I never even thought about it! I remember turning up for the GB Junior Championships as a seventeen year old, and it was an under-20 age group, and I walked away at the end of the day having won it, beaten guys two or three years older than me. I was only training twice a week in the summer and I thought, “I could have a reasonable career at this”. I went to the Olympic Games when I was twenty/twenty-one, and you think, “Well, if I can do it at twenty/twenty-one, and I’ve only been training six days a week for just over a year, what could I achieve?”. So, you do have moments, and they’re perhaps not significant as you live through them. You don’t think, “Eureka, I’m going to have a ten or twelve year international career”, but, when you look back, you think, “Yes, those moments were significant”.

Apart from the last two or three years as a rugby player, I always worked full-time or part-time. I went into the Civil Service as an eighteen year old and worked there for ten years. The Civil Service was quite flexible in those days; if you wanted special leave with pay, to go and run for Great Britain or run for Wales, you could have it. That meant that I could combine the two, and I was pleasing my parents as well, because I was in a career. If you compare that with today, just about anybody who is an international, especially if they are an international who is likely to feature in finals or win medals, they’re a full-time athlete and they’re funded through Lottery funding, either at a local level in Wales (Sport Wales), or at GB level by UK Sport, through their governing body. I only became a full-time rugby player when I was about thirty-two or thirty-three. Not a great deal of life left in you at thirty-two/thirty-three, but the game had just gone professional in 1995 and Cardiff Rugby Club said they wanted their players to be professional.

this is it
I won a bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships and a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in 198 7. I came fourth in the European Outdoor Championships in 1986, setting personal bests [PBs] along the way … a little bit unlucky in the final, not good enough some people would say. I ran a PB but I hit seven hurdles. If I’d been able to have a clean run or a cleaner run, I would have won a medal, and that would have been a big shock at the time.
Going to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was obviously a big thing but I fell in the semi-final, so it’s a bittersweet experience. But, having been brought up on Nadia Comaneci, you know, and Olga Korbut and Ed Moses, to be selected to go to the Olympics was a massive achievement for me that will live with me until the day I die, no two ways about that! I remember turning up at the airport and seeing Steve Cram on one side, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Zola Budd, and just thinking, “Crikey, these are guys that I was idolising two years ago and now we’re aboard a plane to go to the Olympics together”. I was sharing a room with Phil Brown, the relay runner, and Alan Wells who was the defending champion in the 100m, Seb Coe, Mark Naylor, the high jumper, and you think, “This is it!”. The scale of the whole thing, getting buses from the warm-up track to the event track, walking into the Los Angeles Coliseum and seeing 90,000 people there, and thinking, “I used to watch this on TV and think it was unbelievable. Now, I’m going to be part of it”. It really does blow your mind. So, what would it be like to win an Olympic medal and, dare I say, an Olympic gold? Heaven knows. But I was living my dream then, just being in the Games.

wales / gb
I’m a Welshman through and through. I’m also British, but the pride I got particularly wearing the jersey of Wales, it’s almost impossible to describe. Even though I’m working for the English Institute of Sport, everybody I work with knows I’m Welsh and how proud I am to be Welsh.
Should Wales have its own Olympic team? It’s not a conflict for me. I ran in two Commonwealth Games in 1986 and 1990. I was very proud to run for Wales. I was proud to play for Wales. But I was equally proud to run for Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Olympic Games and on twenty-nine other occasions. It’s always been that way in athletics. I wanted to run for my school first of all, then the County and, when I started running for Wales, I was incredibly proud. I wanted to run for Wales in the Commonwealth Games. I achieved that but I knew that, if I wanted to run in the Olympics, I had to be good enough on a GB level, and I got to that standard and I ran for Great Britain … but that doesn’t make me any less proud to be Welsh or to have competed for Wales. When I competed for Great Britain I knew I was Welsh, but I was competing for Great Britain. There are countries smaller than Wales competing in their own right, but, for me, personally, I was happy to compete for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If I’d been competing for Wales at the Olympic Games, I would have been equally happy. But, it wasn’t the case. It isn’t the case. Am I going to make a campaign to get Wales competing as a nation in the Olympics? No, I’m not. Some other people may feel it’s really important for them; it wouldn’t be for me.

the same country as lynn davies
If I had the answer to why Wales punches above its weight, I’d probably be sitting behind a very large desk somewhere earning an incredibly big salary! We’ve just got a sporting reputation, a sporting heritage, a sporting background which belies the number of people who actually live in the country. When you think of all the great Olympians and Paralympians who were born in Wales, or who live in Wales and are, therefore, eligible to compete for Wales, it’s quite an impressive list. When I was a schoolboy in the early ‘70s, I was incredibly proud to come from the same country as Lynn Davies. I was incredibly proud to be a Welshman when the great Welsh rugby team in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was doing its stuff on the world stage. The smaller the country, the greater the resonance of sporting success.
If you think of the Paralympics, in particular: Tanni Grey-Thompson, 11 Paralympic gold medals; David Roberts, 11 Paralympic gold medals, and Dai is going to compete in 2012. He could better that record. Unbelievable. The sporting landscape is richer for Tanni’s efforts and it’s richer for David’s too.
It’s unbelievable that you can have two people come from a relatively small country and have that sort of success at a global level. And, they’re not alone, of course. There have been tens of successful Welsh Olympians, Welsh Paralympians. Why? We don’t know, but long may it continue.
My friend, Colin Jackson bestrode the international stage for a decade; Joe Calzaghe, when he was unbeaten for ten years, when he unified the middleweight boxing titles and then he stepped up a weight; when Shirley Bassey is singing; when Bryn Terfyl is singing, we’re all incredibly proud. It’s not just sport.

My absolute hero is Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela didn’t do a bad job, either, and the reasons for that are obvious: in the face of adversity, really believing in something and sticking to it.
In sporting terms, Daley Thompson, Gerald Davies. Daley Thompson was my hero and then, all of a sudden, I was mixing with him. It’s quite a thing to cope with, Daley Thompson, arguably the most talented British athlete of all time. I say arguably because there have been other greats over the years, but it was his application, his self belief and the fact that he left no stone unturned … and he still had fun. He had a personality.
Gerald Davies, because I used to go and watch Cardiff play and he used to do things and I used to think, “That is unbelievable”. He did it for his club, he did it for his country, he did it for the British and Irish Lions. But, above all, he is the humblest, most relaxed, most generous person I think I’ve ever met, an absolute gentleman. When I started playing, he came up to me one day and he said, “Nigel, my name is Gerald Davies” – as if I wouldn’t know who he was, but that’s a sign of the humility of the man – “If there’s anything I can ever do for you to help your career, let me know”. I was incredibly impressed by that and I’ve met him on countless occasions since, and he’s never done anything to dent that first impression of him.

from monte carlo to aberavon
I went to the ’84 Olympics, fell, as I said, in the semifinal, and consoled myself over the following weeks by telling myself, “You’re only twenty-two. You’ll be back next time”. I was injured in 1988 for a large part of the season, didn’t make the team, so Barcelona 1992 was going to be my final hoorah. Colin was the best in the world, no two ways about that, but we had other world class athletes, too, Tony Jarrett, John Ridgeon. I finished fifth in the Olympic trials. Ridgeon finished sixth which gives you an indication of the standard. I knew, then, that the time had passed me by. I was twenty-nine years of age. I wasn’t getting any faster, that’s for sure, and these young guns were. And that’s when I made a decision, not instantly, that I was going to give rugby a bit of a go. I happened to run into Mark Ring, who I played with at Cardiff schools’ level all those years ago, and he said to me, famous words, “Your athletics career is obviously over, Nigel!”. That’s Mark for you! And I decided then that I was going to throw my lot in with Cardiff Rugby Club. Cardiff had a coach, Alex Evans from Australia, who had just come over, who was prepared to give me a chance, and the rest, as they say, is history. So, it was a double-edged sword: incredible disappointment, and within three or four weeks, I was playing for Cardiff, an incredible transformation.
As an individual athlete, I could please myself where I trained, when I trained, the volume of training. As soon as you get into a team sport, you’ve got to be more selfless. You’ve got to take your team-mates into consideration. If I can just give you one example of the contrast. A few months before I made my debut for Cardiff, I’d been warm-weather training in Monte Carlo, off the back of Colin and Linford Christie, I hasten to add. We were in this five-star hotel in Monte Carlo for a couple of weeks, in the sunshine, people at our beck and call. A short time later, I was making my debut for Cardiff against Aberavon at the Talbot Athletic Ground. Now, no disrespect to people who live in Aberavon, but I think the vast majority of them would concede that Monte Carlo is a little bit more glamorous, and it was a filthy day. That really epitomises the difference that I experienced going from an athletics to a rugby career.

i wonder where gareth used to sit
Athletics career one day, picked to play for Cardiff against Aberavon on the 4 September 1992, and five or six months later, I was selected to play for Wales. I couldn’t believe it! I remember the conversation I had with Alan Davies. He phoned my home. My wife said, “It’s Alan Davies”. I picked up the phone and Alan said, “Nigel, we’ve just selected the team to play against Ireland a week on Saturday, and we’ve picked you on the left wing”. Apparently, we spoke for another five minutes but I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I was going to play for Wales! And, for somebody who was paying to watch Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett and all of those people, here I was going to play for my country and I just couldn’t believe it. From the build up, you begin to get a feeling of the impact that rugby has on the lives of people in Wales, people talking to you before the game and telling you what they expected of you. And, when you wake up on international day, you want to be anywhere else but that team hotel. You feel the pressure. Police escort to the ground, being met by crowds when the bus pulled up, walking into the changing rooms, seeing the number 11 hanging on the peg and thinking, “I wonder where Gareth Edwards used to sit, I wonder where Gerald Davies used to sit”. The Irish running out and you thinking, “It’s loud”, and you running out, and it’s deafening. The roar when you kicked off, the disappointment felt by all when you’d lost. You remember it all.
You go out and play, and the game goes like that [clicking fingers]. I could talk you through it, minute by minute, because it’s etched on my memory. I was again living the dream, having worked so hard for something and it coming to fruition. I’d bore my daughters: “You’ve got to work hard, girls, and you cut the risk of it not working out for you. There are no guarantees in this world but one thing is for sure, if you work really hard, you stand a better chance of achieving what you want”.
I’m told my best game for Wales was against New Zealand at Wembley. I was marking Jeff Wilson, who was an incredibly talented footballer. A certain Jonah Lomu was on the other wing, but Jeff Wilson – and people will criticise me for this – was a better all-round player. Jonah was incredibly difficult to stop and he was a phenomenon, nobody’s doubting that, but Jeff Wilson was a footballer. He posed a number of problems, and I managed to do okay against him. At Wembley, there was a unique atmosphere against the team that was the best in the world, and we were up against it. I think we were 22-0 down after eighteen minutes and we eventually lost the game 42-7.
I might still have the record for most tries scored in a Welsh International, if four is still the record. I don’t know if anybody has got more. There’s a number of people on four, though. I scored my four against Portugal, I think it was, though, and some of the others who have scored four have scored it against better opposition!

investing in success
There’s no a guarantee for success. I don’t think you can underestimate investment: pounds, shillings and pence. Facilities, both in Wales and the UK generally, are much better now than they were ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and if we’re going to continue to punch above our weight at elite sport level, we need to continue that funding, and if there was a dramatic dip in that funding – as Australia found out post-Sydney – performances will reflect that, maybe not in the two or three years immediately after, but certainly seven or eight years after. So, if we want to continue having success, we have to continue investing in it.
It depends how much value those making decisions in government place on success in sport. Some people would say hospitals are more important, education is more important, the environment is more important. All of these things are important, but it’s for the government to decide where sport comes in that pecking order. But, when they make the decision about the funding of sport, they should make it in the knowledge that, if they slash investment, our results at future Commonwealth Games and future Olympic Games, the impact we have around the Commonwealth, around the world, will be much reduced.

giving something back
When I used to go into interviews when I was in my early twenties, I used to say that I’d like to give something back to the sport. Didn’t really know what it meant. If my experiences are of any value to any individual going forward, I’m only too pleased to help. But when I look at coaches who give their time selflessly, make sacrifices so that their athletes have a better chance of being successful, that’s really giving something back. I had a taste of that in the period 1999 to 2001. Linford Christie had a number of athletes who were training in Cardiff – Darren Campbell, Jaimie Baulch and Katharine Merry, and Paul Grey, too – and I just helped them because I was local in Cardiff. Linford lived in London and I was spending four or five days a week with them and I went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Katharine got a bronze medal in the 400m, Darren got a silver in the 200m, and if I was giving anything back, the rewards were much greater than all the sacrifices I’d made. It was an unbelievable feeling to see people winning medals on the world stage. There’s no career which goes from A to B, lasting ten or twelve years, where there aren’t moments of crisis. Most people who have gone before will have experienced something similar, and if you can just give somebody just a heads up: “Just take a step back. Have a think about it. I tried this. It worked for me”. I just think having somebody to talk to, somebody to rant and rave at, somebody who is there to listen. In the limited amount of coaching that I’ve done, I’ve always tried to be a sounding board so that people can unload, allowing them to come up with the answer, themselves.

talent and dedication
Somebody once said to me the seven Ps: “Prior planning and preparation prevent pretty poor performance”, and I’ve cleaned that up! It’s about being the best prepared you can be, leaving no stone unturned. I’ve been very lucky in my life that I’ve mixed with people who have been completely dedicated and incredibly talented. I’ll give you two of them, Daley Thompson and Colin Jackson. They lived it, they slept it, they ate it, they drank it. Daley was absolutely incredible. Some people would say he was arrogant but he felt he was the best in the world. If he trained like a champion, it was impossible for people to beat him. And I’ve never forgotten that. So why didn’t Colin Jackson win a gold medal at the Olympics? Because you need that little bit of luck, as well. Colin went in 1988 when he was twenty-one years of age and he won the silver medal behind Roger Kingdom. Roger was virtually unbeatable at that stage. Four years later, the window was there for Colin. I think he’d gone 30-odd races or a year and a bit, unbeaten, picked up a little injury in the qualifying round and he couldn’t perform at his best. His training partner, Mark McCoy, beat him, in 13.12, a time Colin could run in his sleep. I don’t know how many times Colin had run faster than that in the previous twelve months. By 1996, although Colin got to the Final, it had passed him by. It’s just one of those things. You do need an element of luck or you need to avoid the bad luck and Colin had a little bit of bad luck picking up that injury. But there’s no two ways about it, for about four or five years, maybe longer – I’m sure he’ll correct me if he sees this – he was the best sprint hurdler in the world … by a country mile.

Three words to describe myself: committed, loyal, honest.

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