By Matthew Syed in THE TIMES, 10 April 2019
Like many readers, I was struck by the piece by Beverley Turner on these pages on Monday. It was about the break-up of her marriage with James Cracknell, a story that some will feel should never have been aired publicly, but which I found wise and moving.
Cracknell, who I have met many times, is a two-times Olympic gold medallist with a track record of setting — and achieving — seemingly impossible tasks. He rowed the Atlantic in 2005-06, trekked to the South Pole three years later, and became the highest-placed Briton (12th) in 2010 in the 25-year history of the Marathon des Sables, a six-day ultramarathon.
On Sunday, he was a member of the victorious Cambridge crew in the Boat Race, having returned to university last year to complete an MPhil in human evolution. At 46, he is the oldest boat race winner.
One part of Turner’s piece focused on the serious head injury suffered by Cracknell nine years ago while taking part in a televised journey across the United States (rowing, running and cycling from Los Angeles to the Statue of Liberty in New York).
The results were devastating, with Cracknell suffering memory loss along with an array of personality changes: impulsiveness, a lack of inhibition, forward-planning and time-keeping difficulties, an inability to accurately read or show emotion, and poor anger management.
“Real-life commitments were too pesky — they risked getting in the way of his ambition,” Turner, 45, writes. “When James spent 50 days rowing across the Atlantic with Ben Fogle, he failed to discuss his plans with me in any detail despite us having a two-year-old son.”
Even after training, Cracknell’s mind would turn to the next day, and the next; a constant quest to stretch his limitations, a trait familiar in so many elite athletes, but which often takes a toll on loved ones. “I have since spent many evenings in the company of multiple Olympic medallists and it’s obvious to me that such ambitions rarely arise from a healthy psychological place,” Turner writes. “Having to endure physical and emotional torture to prove oneself on a global stage starts life as a blessing, but its inescapability is often a curse”.
I remember chatting to Jonny Wilkinson a decade or so ago about his “obsession”. He would practise forensically on the training pitch, kicking balls over the goalposts, honing his technique, perfecting his art, and then go home, ostensibly to spend time with his girlfriend. While having dinner, however, his eyes would glaze, his mind fixating upon that one miss during practice. “I couldn’t switch off,” he said.
Victoria Pendleton and Martina Navratilova are others who have talked of the intensity of their ambition and of the havoc this could wreak on relationships. The desire to be the best is, for some, all-consuming.
Moreover, the culture of elite sport is often one where switching off, regarded as essential in most walks of life, is frowned upon. Jürgen Gröbler, the Great Britain rowing coach who masterminded Cracknell’s two gold medals, had a mantra: “Rest is rust”.
I agree with Turner that this sounds unhealthy, and yet am I alone in reflecting upon the idea that obsession is often bound up with greatness? I think of Picasso in the frenzied last days working on Guernica, of George Mallory’s insatiable desire to climb Everest in 1924, a feat so daring (his team had but rudimentary equipment and no supplementary oxygen) that one reads about it to this day with awe. “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and for ever upward, then you won’t see why we go,” he said. I also note how the history of our species has been shaped by the single-minded and fanatical; people who dared to believe when others doubted. About 65,000 years ago, a small band of our ancestors left the safety of Africa to cross the Red Sea, a 40-mile stretch of water.
Can we not but wonder about the courage of those first crossers, seeking a brave new world, overcoming odds that make the rest of us tremble? It was these adventurers who triggered the exodus out of Africa, and the modern history of Homo sapiens.
I certainly don’t think that obsessiveness, still less selfishness, is a necessary or sufficient condition for high achievement. I know of many athletes who have lived relatively balanced lives, not least the likes of Roger Federer and David Gower. Indeed, there may be performance advantages that accrue to those who learn how to wind down, a point made by Mike Atherton on these pages last week in a wise column about sabbaticals.
But we should also acknowledge that obsessiveness is, for some people, central to their character and potency. I doubt that Margaret Thatcher would have had anything like the impact upon our country without that unwavering, pale-eyed intensity — she once said: “Marxists get up early to further their cause. We must get up even earlier to defend our freedom.”
And this is why I have deep admiration for Cracknell and Turner. He has persevered through hardship few of us could imagine, and come out the other side. I welled up watching him, just a year and a half younger than myself, win the Boat Race on Sunday. His interview in The Telegraph yesterday brought home, once again, the depth of his character and never-say-die attitude. He is an inspiration to millions.
Yet I feel every bit as much admiration for Turner, who has raised three children, often alone, a challenge that any parent will acknowledge is as demanding as any marathon. That she did so while nurturing a husband whose injuries altered his personality merely adds to one’s awe. As she put it on Monday: “Experts talk of ‘ambiguous loss’. It’s the perfect phrase.
“Articulating what has gone [when the person is beside you] can be like catching snowflakes: they slip through your fingers or melt before you can see them clearly. And as with all grief, anger and sadness get too comfortable in your heart.”