Meet Olympic athlete Roger Black

Roger Black

Banned from athletics at school, Roger Black became one of Britain’s greatest 400m runners. In this interview, which was carried out in the run-up to London 2012, he tells Sarah Brealey about his passion for sport, his role at the Olympics and how he stays fit despite his heart condition.

Who better to mentor Britain’s Olympic athletes than Roger Black? Undeterred by a leaky heart valve, which stopped him taking up athletics until the age of 18, Roger, now 46, has won success both as an individual 400m runner and a member of the British 4 x 400m relay team.

Altogether he’s collected an impressive 15 major championship medals for Britain including European, Commonwealth and World Championship gold medals. But he regards his greatest achievement as winning the Olympic 400m silver medal in 1996.

These days he works as a motivational speaker and lives in Surrey with his wife Julia and twins Max and George, aged six.

What's your role in the Olympics?

I’m a Team GB 2012 ambassador, along with people like Steve Redgrave, Sally Gunnell, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. It’s mostly a mentoring role for the athletes – moral support, someone to talk to, that sort of thing. There’s going to be an enormous amount of attention on them this year and they need to remember that in the end, it’s just another track or just another swimming pool. In that situation, you need someone to help you stay grounded, someone who’s not emotionally involved but who understands what you’re going through because they’ve been there too.

Will having the Olympics here inspire people to play sport?

I don’t see how it can fail to inspire people. The Olympics is unique because it’s a multi-sport event for both men and women and includes sports you don’t get to see very often. There’s something for everyone.

Roger Black

But above all, it’s about inspiring the kids. It’s happened at my kids’ school already – they recently had a touring theatre that did an Olympics-themed play. Every school in this country should engage every child in this country in the Games, not just the sport but also the cultural side of it, the fact that there will be people from so many countries coming here.

It’s an opportunity to inspire kids that may never happen again. But it’s down to us as parents and teachers to be creative and make the most of it. Let’s get as many children into the Olympic Park as possible and have lessons that are themed around the Olympics. Let’s get Olympians into schools to talk to the children.

What’s your proudest achievement?

There are two: winning my silver medal for the 400m at the Olympics in 1996 and winning gold at the 1991 World Championships in the relay with Kriss Akabusi, Derek Redmond and John Regis. The Olympics comes first because it’s ultimately all about being judged as an individual on the most important stage of all, against a guy I couldn’t beat – Mark Johnson. With the Olympics, you’re part of history. I think the last time a British man won the 400m at the Olympics was back in Chariots of Fire days [1924].

Tell us about your own experience of heart problems.

I have a leaky heart valve, which was picked up at a school medical when I was 11. I was sent to see a specialist in Southampton and have had to have check-ups once or twice a year ever since. Every time I went for a check-up, I knew there was a risk I would be told never to race again. In fact, I didn’t go for my check-up in 1996 – there was no way I wasn’t going to go to the Olympics.

"I didn’t go for my check-up in 1996 – there was no way I wasn’t going to go to the Olympics"

It did have a major effect on me when I was young. I was a kid who loved sport and I wasn’t allowed to play. After a few months, it became apparent that not letting this kid who was faster than anyone else play rugby was silly, so they let me.

But I was never allowed to do cross-country or athletics – in fact, I didn’t join an athletics club till I was 18. That was a worry to my father, who was a doctor. I had to try to gauge whether I was abnormally out of breath, which is difficult when you’re training hard.

I had one bad scare in about 1990 when I ended up in hospital for ten days. They thought I had endocarditis, which would have meant my heart valves needed replacing. It turned out I had psittacosis, which is a completely different bacterial infection you can catch from birds.

I am aware that on the scale of heart problems it’s not a very big one. I’ve never used it as an excuse or publicised it. I’ve lived a normal life and have never to this day felt it had an effect on my health. However, I do have a heart problem that you can see on a scan, and because I know that it’s there, it will always affect me.

How has your health changed as you’ve got older?

My body isn’t what it used to be. It hurts a lot more now – my back hurts, my knees hurt. I don’t have the desire to push myself any more. Maybe my heart condition has affected that. I have got away with pushing myself a lot in the past and I don’t want to keep doing it now.

I did the London Marathon in 2000 in a time of three hours, 45 minutes. That did worry my father and I’ll never do another one. People think I must be really competitive, but I’m not. There’s a part of me that won’t do too much now, just in case.

What’s your health regime and how has it changed since you were an athlete?

"I’m a big fan of oily fish, which is so good for your heart, but most people don’t eat enough of it"

When I was an athlete I used to train intensively for five to six hours a day, six days a week. I eat much better now than I did then. As an athlete, I ate what I wanted because I was doing so much exercise.

I believe in moving every day. I jog for half an hour a day with my wife Julia, and I go swimming a few times a week. I try to eat healthily – lots of fruit and vegetables, fish, and porridge in the morning. I’m a big fan of oily fish, which is so good for your heart, but most people don’t eat enough of it. I suspect that perhaps they think cooking fish is a hassle, even though it’s not. I cook salmon a couple of times a week. I wrap it in foil, bake it in the oven for 15 minutes – it couldn’t be easier.

I’m not a health freak but I have a heart problem, I’m a parent, I’m 46, and I’m very aware that anything could happen to my heart, so I want to look after it.

You’ve been a big supporter of the British Heart Foundation. Why is that?

I’m patron of a few charities, but the ones I make time for are the ones that are really close to me personally, like the BHF. I’ve seen the development of cardiac diagnostics over the years – it’s incredible – and I’ve probably benefited in other ways from its past investment in cardiac research. I may well benefit from current BHF research if I live for another 30 or 40 years.

Do you think drugs are a big problem for athletics?

Yes and no. Drugs have been a public problem in the sport for years. I think the vast majority of athletes are clean but the story is the ones that are not. There is always a doubt, but you have to believe, and I think people are right to believe, because most athletes are not taking drugs.

What was it like to be awarded a gold medal for the 2007 world championships, three years after the event?

It didn’t mean anything to me. I haven’t even got it. It is sitting in Birmingham somewhere. You can't get the moment back. The medal doesn’t change my life now – it would have been great then. It was worse for the other three because I had already won a World Championships relay, which they hadn’t. As an athlete you train to win, you train for the moment, that is what it is for. A medal several years later doesn’t make any difference to that.

You’ve had to fight a number of injuries in your career – how do you deal with that?

You just hang on in there. It is hard but you just hang on to your dream. You know once your career is over it is over. You can push through it.

You reached the final of Celebrity Masterchef a few years ago – are you a keen cook?

I do most of the cooking at home, but I wouldn’t say I am a great cook. Doing Masterchef a few years ago taught me about the importance of quality ingredients and keeping things simple. My signature dish is chicken and butternut squash risotto. I don't do elaborate dinner parties. My favourite food when I am eating out is sushi.

Tell us a joke...

My favourite joke at the moment is one from my children. Why did the banana go to the doctor? He wasn’t peeling well.

Read Roger's health tips and fast facts about Roger

Read our interview with Olympic sprinter and hurdler Kriss Akabusi

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