EXCLUSIVE: Our golden night at London 2012 was hell for me, admits Dai Greene
22:43 GMT, 7 December 2012
Three golds on one glorious evening. A stadium rocking. Joy unconfined. 'Ah, the greatest night in British athletics history,' says Dai Greene, 'was the night I came fourth in my semi-final.'
He can finally bring himself to laugh about that – and the toughest point of his life, two days later, when he missed out on a long- predicted medal in the 400 metres hurdles – now that the stadium cacophony has been exchanged for the contemplative quiet of a Bath cafe.
Dai another day: Greene had endured a tough year
He is ready to confront the truth that has barely uttered its name in the back-slapping, bus-touring, bunting-strewn euphoria of London 2012: sport can crush as well as exalt.
Nobody knows that more palpably than Greene. Some of our Olympians were simply happy to be at the Games; others merely hoped to mount the podium. Even after his injury-ravaged preparations, he was expected to do so. 'The question all year was not whether I could win a medal,' says the Welshman, 'but whether I could win gold. Simple as that.' Green, after all, was champion of Europe, champion of the Commonwealth and champion of the world. Selected as captain of the British athletics team, he was a proven big-stage performer.
His one anticipated task was to beat Javier Culson, of Puerto Rico, the season's best performer. That assumption was ripped apart on the night Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford reigned in gold.
'The heats had been lovely,' remembers Greene, 26. 'I won nice and easily. The crowd was brilliant and I believed everything was going to be fantastic in the semi-final. It was . . . until I looked inside and saw a few guys there alongside me and thought, “What the hell . . . ” They weren't my pace. They were pulling away. S***. The crowd got quieter and I panicked a bit. It was horrible.
'People always said athletes raise their games for an Olympics but I didn't believe it until I saw it at that moment.' The three men who beat him had all set their season's best. The Dominican Republic's Felix Sanchez, the eventual champion, had run his fastest time for eight years, at the age of 34.
'You do think it has gone t**s up,' says Greene. 'But you don't want to admit it to yourself. You cling to the hope that you still have something special inside you. I just hoped they couldn't run that fast again. But after the semi, yes, I would have been happy just to get any sort of medal, let alone gold.
'I got lane three – that was OK. I stuttered into the last hurdle but, regardless of that, I hadn't got it in me to do better.' America's Michael Tinsley was second to Sanchez, Culson third and Greene fourth.
'This was the biggest competition of my life and I just wasn't in the place I wanted to be,' admits Greene.
'After that I didn't want to speak to anyone. I went to get food in the canteen and then to find Malcolm (Arnold, his coach) to get my phone off him. I don't think I rang Sian (his girlfriend). I texted her to say I was OK and that we would speak tomorrow.
'I went to my room. It was hard to sleep. Usually you get over a disappointment in a few days. But with this you knew you would never get another chance.
Down and out of medals: Greene finished fourth in London
'Every day got slightly better. I was going through a process. I wasn't asking for help.' Greene's Olympics ended with fourth place in the 4×400 metres relay, bringing him close to tears.
'I didn't want to talk athletics for weeks,' he says. 'I didn't watch the Olympics after that. I barely watched the Paralympics. I didn't go on the London parade. I didn't see it on telly.'
What few people understood was the extent of Greene's injury. He had surgery on his left knee almost exactly a year ago but barely talked publicly about the ongoing problems he suffered. He did, however, type some painful and honest notes prior to the operation. In them he says: 'I'm a world champion. I can't be injured. I felt in great condition. I saw pain as a weakness.'
Nearly a month after surgery, and still having five hours of physio a day, he was thrilled to run 400m flat in the super-slow time of 2min 20sec. Even as late as April, he had to fly back from a training camp in Portugal for urgent treatment, his inability to stay compact by bringing his heel up to his buttocks as he hurdled having upset the rest of his body.
His fastest run of the year came at a Diamond League meeting in Paris, but his paucity of sustained training left him unable to improve on, or even sustain, his time of 47.84sec. His best at the Games was 48.19sec, in the semi-final. Now able to rationalise his performance, and happier after breaks in the south of France and New York, Greene is back in full training.
'These experiences make you a stronger person,' he says. 'Now my body is holding up. The volume of work I am doing is going up. I have my world title to defend in Moscow next year. Felix is eight years older than me so, yes, the next Olympics in Rio are definitely a realistic target. But for now I am not thinking too much about that. I am just excited about being an athlete again.'