Roger Black: ‘I was lucky there were so few Olympic medallists in the 90s – you can win now and be forgotten’

Guy Kelly
The Telegraph
Former 400m runner Roger Black photographer in Guildford this month - Jeff Gilbert/Telegraph
Former 400m runner Roger Black photographer in Guildford this month - Jeff Gilbert/Telegraph

Whenever Roger Black reads a story about a sportsman “dropping-down dead” from an undiagnosed heart condition, he always thinks the exact same thing – “that I was so, so lucky”.

Black was an 11-year-old new boy at Portsmouth Grammar School when the doctor conducting his arrival medical detected a “leaky heart valve” – a condition whereby his aortic valve is incompetent, allowing blood to leave but then not shutting properly, meaning some can flow back the wrong way – which has been checked every year, without fail, ever since.

“My heart has probably been monitored more than pretty much anyone from 11, but some people never have their conditions found or let it hold them back. If you get the right support, you have no need to live in fear.”

It’s reasonable to say Black, now 52, didn’t ever let his leaky heart rule his head. After that medical in 1977, the doctor signed him off competitive sport for two frustrating years, meaning he has never known the horrors of school cross-country (“I only ever watched. It was the best thing about the whole thing”), but after another scan two years later, he was allowed to take part – and excel – in the rugby, football and cricket teams. Then he flunked his A-levels, forcing him to take a year off to have another crack at the maths grade he needed in order to attend medical school, where he discovered athletics.

<span>Roger Black celebrating his silver medal for the men's 4x400m relay at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996</span> <span>Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Getty </span>
Roger Black celebrating his silver medal for the men's 4x400m relay at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996 Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Getty

“If I’d not messed up my A-level, I wouldn’t be here. I started running, beat everyone at the county championships, then I went across to train in Southampton with Kriss Akabusi and Todd Bennett, who had just come back from the Olympics in Los Angeles. Then I caught up with them,” he says. “And it sounds like a cliché, but the rest, as they say, is history.”

It is history, but quite distant history these days, so it’s best to complete the story. For a while, Black tried to juggle studying at the University of Southampton with running in his spare time, but soon dropped the former, which was a wise decision. A sensationally fast 400m runner who at that time arrived on the athletics scene seemingly from nowhere, the young Black – a beanpole with matinee-idol looks – won the European Championship and Commonwealth golds as a 22-year-old in 1986, breaking the British record in the process. It began a 12-year career that ended with 15 major medals, including three in the Olympics.

My heart has probably been monitored more than pretty much anyone from 11. If you get the right support, you have no need to live in fear

My heart has probably been monitored more than pretty much anyone from 11. If you get the right support, you have no need to live in fear

Well-practiced in the tale (he has given hundreds of motivational talks), Black tells his career story in the clubhouse at Guildford athletics club, where he’s speaking as an ambassador for the British Heart Foundation’s latest campaign, Face A Fear.

He’s back in a tracksuit to be photographed, and while two decades have passed since his retirement from professional sport, looking at him, he’d still pass for 30. “Sex on legs”, feverish athletics fans used to write on their banners in his heyday. He is happily married now.

Looking back, only once did Black consider his heart condition in his sporting career.

“In 1989, I got a really bad fever, which doctors thought could be bacterial endocarditis, a very serious infection that leaves you in quite a bit of trouble if you have it, and I’d be susceptible with an incompetent valve. I spent 10 days in hospital having tests every day, but it turned out to be a false alarm. I had psittacosis, which you actually pick up from birds, weirdly.”

Aside from that occasion, throughout school and young adulthood he was “never aware” of his heart defect, and the annual scans backed up his relaxed attitude. But at home in Hampshire, there was one secret worrier. Black’s father, David, was both a GP and a sufferer of his own cardiac troubles.

<span>These days, Black runs a company with former javelin star Steve Backley</span> <span>Credit: Jeff Gilbert/Telegraph </span>
These days, Black runs a company with former javelin star Steve Backley Credit: Jeff Gilbert/Telegraph

As a child, Black and his siblings ­– a sister and two brothers, one of whom is the principal horn in the Philharmonia Orchestra – noticed their father never making it through dinner to dessert, because the phone would always ring with an ailing Gosport resident. He was a supportive but largely hands-off father.

“He was always concerned, always asking me how I felt after training, asking me, ‘Are you significantly more out of breath than everyone else?’ Well, I was training against Daley Thompson… I later found out my dad would often privately ask Kriss how I was doing, but he’d say I was fine,” he says.

“The only time Dad really worried was when I did the London Marathon in 2000. He told me I should never do that again, that it was a long way, and a lot of time to be pushing myself. It was the only time he came close to disapproving of anything.”

The day I retired was a massive relief. Mentally and physically, I was broken

The day I retired was a massive relief. Mentally and physically, I was broken

Today, Black goes for light jogs five times a week with his wife, Julia Burgess, and believes little and often – never over-exerting – are the key to staying fit and healthy in middle age. He accepts he may need an artificial valve up in at some point, but doesn’t mind: 40 years of check-ups mean he’s seen the NHS’s heart care change dramatically.

As a child, he remembers the suckers of an ECG, and was one of the first heart patients to have an MRI. Whatever the future holds, Black is ready. “I’m as fit as I can be, and I’ve had a close relationship with the NHS, but I can’t fault it.”

His diet is better now than it was in the 90s, and he’s happy running BackleyBlack, a business training company he started with former javelin thrower Steve Backley, which sets out to inspire “Olympic performance in the workplace”. He and Burgess live in Guildford with their twin 12-year-old boys, and Black has a daughter, who is 18, from a previous marriage to the Martinique athlete, Elsa de Vassoigne.

Does he ever miss the track? In a word… no.

“Not once, even when I was doing TV punditry trackside,” he says. “The day I retired was a massive relief. Mentally and physically, I was broken. The life of a top athlete is so extreme, and you’re judged solely on how you perform. And if you don’t, you wait four years for another Olympics. There’s a lot of stuff around at the moment about mental health in sports, and I get it. When you retire, how do you replace it?”

<span>Michael Johnson beats Roger Black in Atlanta in 1996</span> <span>Credit: Russell Cheyne/The Telegraph </span>
Michael Johnson beats Roger Black in Atlanta in 1996 Credit: Russell Cheyne/The Telegraph

In a way, he says, he was lucky to have raced in an era when Olympic medals for British athletes were a novelty, rather than an expectation. In 1996, when he won his Olympic silver medal in Atlanta by finishing second to Michael Johnson’s then-world record in the 400m, he was one of just 10 medalists from Great Britain, compared with 67 at Rio 2016. 

“I was so blessed to be one of very few. Now, you can win one and be forgotten. It doesn’t automatically mean you can go on to work in the media or do TV shows [Black did Strictly Come Dancing in 2004]. The world moves on and not everyone cares about sport.”

He has a lot of sympathy with the likes of Gail Emms, a badminton silver medalist from Athens 2004, who spoke last year about her financial and employment struggles after retiring from sport.

“I understand that completely. And I’ve suffered the mental health lows a little myself, but the problem is that the focus required to be an athlete isn’t shared in the real world. If you can’t see the transferrable skills, you lose your identity. You’ve got to reinvent yourself…” he says, launching into quite a pep talk.

The leaky heart, the A-level disaster turned great opportunity, the natural talent plus painful hard work, the success, the retirement preparation… listening to him, it’s actually quite easy to tell Black is a motivational coach. A moment later, he stops.

“So, sorry, long answer. You asked me if I ever miss it: no, I don’t miss athletics. I respect how hard it was. I was just lucky to be there.”

Roger Black is an ambassador for the British Heart Foundation. To help fund life-saving research and find out more about the charity’s Face a Fear challenge, visit bhf.org.uk/faceafear

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