Dai Greene is sitting outside the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels on a still September evening. Just a few minutes ago he was centre stage on the track. He finished second, but in doing so became overall winner of the 2011 Diamond League Series, world athletics’ top-tier season-long competition. Listening to the muted roar of the 50,000 crowd, a grin spreads across his face.
At one time, winning the Diamond League and defeating former world champions Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson in the process would have been the crowning glory for the brickie’s son from Llanelli. But recent results have relegated it to the ‘cherry on the cake’. This final race of the year ends a 14-month golden period that has established him as one of the world’s finest athletes. In 2010, Greene became European and Commonwealth champ then, two weeks before Brussels, he became World champion in Daegu. And with a home Olympics round the corner, he’s in prime position to take the only prize now missing from his collection.
The Hard Yards
Rewind to a blustery August day at the University of Bath Performance Centre, and he’s a different man. It’s three weeks before the World Champs, and victory is far from guaranteed. He warms up trackside, quiet and focused. He and training partner Jack Green are in the midst of two weeks of high-intensity training. They know this session will leave them on the floor, but that’s how Greene likes it. Under veteran coach Malcolm Arnold, Greene trains relentlessly year-round on Bath’s hills and the track. His mantra: “When you’ve trained yourself into the ground, train some more.”
Even the pros can’t make the 400m hurdles look easy. Faced with an event so physically and mentally tough it’s known as ‘the man killer’, Greene gets his confidence from these hours of preparatory punishment. “Racing’s the easy bit,” he says. “I never feel as bad after racing as training, because it’s a third of the distance. Some people lose it on the start line, thinking, ‘It’s a long way to go.’ If you think like that, you’re buggered. The training we do means I know I’m ready.”
The Right Consistency
In an event where the smallest error spells defeat, consistency is king-maker and Greene is regally steady. That his four best times for the year are within two-tenths of a second is testimony to how well he knows his race. And his six-foot frame shows further proof of the hours he puts in, every part of him honed over years for the sole purpose of winning hurdles races.
“C’mon then,” says Arnold, starting his stopwatch as Greene and Green set off on the first of three full-pace laps, broken by minimal rest. “Dai is a very quiet, laid- back character,” says Arnold. “But he’s an athlete with many strengths – one of his biggest is his ability to turn it up a notch when he competes – you either have that or you don’t. Just talking to him about competing is like lighting a piece of touch paper.”
Now in his early 70s, Arnold is an athletics legend, having coached Ugandan 400m hurdler and Olympic gold medallist John Akii-Bua and former world champion hurdler Colin Jackson, among others. He has one rule: “If athletes are not dedicated, driven and hardworking, I don’t want them.” His two current charges finish their first 400m and lie on their backs, panting. “They’re definitely not sunbathing,” Arnold says, chuckling. “I would have retired 10 years ago if I had any sense, but it’s the sheer joy of working with these two keeps me at it, isn’t it boys?” Greene laughs. “It’s a pleasure coming to work, isn’t it Malcolm?”
After training Greene heads for the home he shares with girlfriend Sian, five minutes from the track, for some much-needed rest. He has to be ready to do it all again tomorrow, but he’s not complaining. Greene is passionate, and a true student of his discipline, having written a 10,000-word dissertation on hurdling while at university in Cardiff. He has also studied hours of footage of greats such as the Dominican 2004 Olympic Champion Félix Sánchez and the legendary Ed Moses (see ‘The Greatest on Greene’, opposite), constantly learning. Let him loose on the topic of the 400m hurdles and he unleashes a blizzard of tactical options and statistical probabilities, his usually calm, measured speech picking up speed as if verbally running the race he’s describing. “There’s no margin for error,” he says. “There are around 150 strides that you have to get spot on. Six-tenths of a second separates first and last, so you have to analyse what works. The technical side of things is so interesting, it’s not just the fastest person or the strongest person that wins. There are so many ways to run the race.”
Greene’s hurdling actually owes a debt to football. He played for Swansea City’s youth team and, looking to emulate his idol Ryan Giggs, right-footed Greene trained himself to play as a left-winger. When, aged 17, he turned down a contract to focus on athletics, hurdling came naturally as he could lead with either foot. Though he showed promise, at college he was, “only training twice a week, out at the weekend drinking”. Then, after suffering a fit, he was diagnosed with mild epilepsy, partly triggered by alcohol. That, combined with a move to university, changed everything.
On the next page: Discover how Greene became the best in the world.
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