Olympic champion hopes world 4x100m relay gold will act as a catalyst for British athletes to scale even greater heights on the biggest stages in future
Darren Campbell knows from personal experience just how strong the power of sport can be and, last month, he was provided with a couple of stark reminders.
Firstly, in his role as commentator for BBC Radio Five Live, he bore witness to the British men’s 4x100m relay team sending the London Stadium into raptures as they took IAAF World Championships gold.
Then, just a few days later, Campbell found himself back on an athletics track and taking the acclaim of the crowd after racing with his old 4x100m relay team-mates for the first time since they had tasted their own golden moment at the Athens Olympics some 13 years previously.
It was the 43-year-old’s idea to get the gang back together. As a proud Mancunian he had wanted do something for the city which came under terrorist attack back in May, and so it was that the ‘Golden Relay’ was run at the Manchester International in aid of the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund.
Campbell, along with team-mates Jason Gardener, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lews-Francis, revelled in the warmth of the people who turned out to watch and cast their minds back to a particularly high point of the past.
What excites Campbell now, though, is the future which could lie in store for the class of 2017.
He hadn’t been expecting them to win gold but, in the build-up to the IAAF World Championships, the 200m Olympic silver medallist visited their training camp in Portugal and, based on what he saw, predicted the quartet would break the European record of 37.73 which he had set with Gardener, Devonish and Dwain Chambers at the 1999 championships in Seville.
CJ Ujah, Adam Gemili, Danny Talbot and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake combined to run 37.47 in London.
“We knew they were capable of winning and it’s fantastic that they did it in London”
“Trust me, sometimes sportspeople can be jealous and envious but there’s none of that here,” says Campbell. “For us, it’s a case of ‘about time’. We knew they were capable of it and it’s fantastic that they did it in London. When I was standing there commentating for Five Live, I realised how it must have felt for everyone else watching us in 2004. It was mind-blowing and that’s why I love sport.”
Campbell is hopeful, too, that that ‘mind-blowing’ moment could be a starting point from which a new mental state and further great athletic achievement can flow, both collectively and individually.
“I had a conversation with Danny Talbot and there’s a good maturity level with this next generation where they understand (what’s needed),” he says.
“I often talk about being at the top table. They are now sat at the head of the top table so it’s important that they use what they learned to get there in the relay and transport that into their individual races.
“They’ve shown they are capable of it and they realise the difference between believing and truly believing – it’s a totally different thing.
“In Athens the four of us truly believed we’d win and we did. They (the London 2017 British relay team) truly believed too and I knew that when I went and interviewed them at their relay camp in Portugal. I could see it and that’s when I said to them ‘you’ll break the European record’.
“They still had to run, though, and they took it to a different level. I thought they could get silver – they won gold.”
He adds: “We’ve had talent for a long time, it’s just transitioning it. With the talent we’ve got, I should not be the last sprinter to win an individual global medal. I’m not that special, I just had a crazy mindset and that’s all they need.
“It’s not that they have issues with the mental side of things it’s just that the mindset has to go to another level (to achieve success). Sometimes something needs to happen in your career to give you that extra belief so I’m hoping (in this case) it’s world championship gold and the European record.
“We set that record in 1999 so if you look at what was achieved throughout the rest of our careers, that was the catalyst. I’m hoping this (world relay gold) will be a catalyst for them, too. Some of these guys have got 10 years, so the future is bright and there are enough of them fighting!”
The bonds created by their past achievements were clear to see when Campbell and his fellow 2004 heroes ran in the Manchester Regional Arena. It might have been 13 years since they had changed a baton between them but the changeovers were still slick and they still finished first.
It was a moment of light in what has been a dark time for the oldest member of the team.
“It’s just the power of the sport,” he says. “I love what it’s given me, what it’s taught me and it felt important that we should come and do something for Manchester.
“It’s been a difficult year for me and my family. My wife’s father passed away at the same time as the Manchester bombing and I just wanted to do something. So I called the guys and said ‘look, we haven’t run since Athens – do you want to do it one more time for a good cause?’.
“Because I’m the oldest I was secretly hoping they’d all go ‘oh, really?’ but they all said ‘yeah’! But I’m so glad they did and it’s been superb, it’s really been special.
“It’s easy to get down and depressed but if you’re fit you feel like you can deal with anything and, after the year we’ve had, it’s been emotional.”
» To make a donation to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund, visit: justgiving.com/fundraising/goldenrelay
» You can read an exclusive interview with London 2017 4x100m gold medallist Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake in the September 21 edition of AW magazine, out now.