Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis recall the magical moment from the 2004 Olympics when they shocked the mighty Americans to claim gold
On the eve of the men’s 4x100m final at the 2004 Olympics in Athens the British team had been written off as no-hopers. Plagued by poor form, none of the quartet – Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis – had reached the final of their individual event in the Greek capital. In comparison, the fearsome American team featured 100m winner Justin Gatlin, 200m gold medallist Shawn Crawford and former 100m world and Olympic champion Maurice Greene.
Undeterred, the GB team took to the track at just before 10pm on the final night of the track and field action at the Games with an uncanny self belief and determination to turn the form book on its head. This was their moment, they felt, to etch their names into Olympic folklore.
“Seize the day!” relay coach Steve Perks told them as they set off for battle. What followed was a textbook display of brilliant – in fact near-perfect – baton exchanges as they put pressure on their swifter but less assured US rivals to win a nail-biting race by one hundredth of a second.
“It was 17 years ago now,” says Campbell, “but it’s one of those moments in your life that you’ll never forget. From a very young age we all dreamt about going to the Olympic Games and potentially standing on the top of that podium, so for it to happen in 2004 was absolutely unbelievable.
“What made it even more special is that it happened with these three guys. For me, it just created this bond and friendship that just can’t be broken.”
“It was a special moment,” Devonish agrees. “We bonded together. We were completely focused on the job at hand.”
Campbell, Gardener, Devonish and Lewis-Francis are speaking to me via video from various parts of the world. Devonish, for example, is in China where he works at a British international school in Shanghai. Recently, they have collaborated on a book that tells the story of their victory in Athens called Our Race and during our lengthy chat they describe the build-up to a moment which would change their lives.
The seeds of success were planted years earlier when Perks was put in charge of the British junior sprint relay squad in 1992. That same year Campbell was part of a GB team who beat the Americans to gold at the World Junior Championships in Seoul. Then, two years later at the World Junior Championships in Lisbon, Gardener and Devonish were part of a squad that retained the title, again ahead of the United States. It was a sign of things to come.
The next few years proved a rollercoaster ride, though, with mixed fortunes. At the 1999 World Championships in Seville the team won silver behind the US followed by disaster at the Sydney Olympics where the team exited in the heats.
“It’s fair to say we weren’t a team,” says Gardener as he looks back to Sydney. “There was too much infighting. We lost our focus and we came away what we deserved, which was nothing. So we had to eat some serious humble pie and rebuild.”
“A lot of people from the outside looking in just think that we fluked it in Athens,” adds Campbell. “And that we were lucky to win Olympic gold. But it was the climax of a journey we were on for many years.”
Campbell and Devonish combined with Christian Malcolm and Dwain Chambers to win silver – again behind the Americans – at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. But the team then lost their medal and anchorman Chambers when he got embroiled in the Balco doping scandal.
“Opportunity can bring us present itself in adversity,” says Gardener. “And (the Chambers revelation) was the kind of bombshell which rocked British sprinting. There was the realisation one of our team-mates had been banned and we had no automatic qualification and what that did was in force a real clarity of purpose.
“We made this code of conduct where we created our own values where we were going to work for each other and give commitment. We weren’t going to do some of the things which used to happen such as people saying they would come to training camps but instead going to Zurich to earn money on the grand prix circuit or just playing silly buggers by messing around or being late or not quite fully focusing on the task in hand.
“So that was, for me, amazing because we started to have a group of people that gave absolutely 100%. And that’s how we kind of really came together as a team. We had each other’s backs and now we’re best friends and connected by that wonderful experience.
“That’s what sport can do. Athletics can be a great sport when it’s delivered right.”
Even the disappointing performances by the team in their individual events in Athens ended up working in their favour as they had a point to prove in the relay. Campbell, the eldest of the team at 30, was struggling with a hamstring injury and became embroiled in a mid-Games war of words with fellow sprinter Michael Johnson following critical comments made on BBC.
Gardener, 28, and Lewis-Francis, at 21 the youngest of the team, had gone out of the 100m semi-finals, while Devonish, 28, had also struggled for form and watched from the sidelines as fellow relay squad runners Malcolm and Chris Lambert went out in the 200m rounds.
Meanwhile the Americans were rampant. Gatlin won the 100m gold with 2000 Olympic champion Greene taking bronze and Crawford in fourth. Crawford then took 200m gold at the Games and they would be joined in the relay by Coby Miller, a so-called weak link who had nevertheless broken 10 seconds for 100m and 20 seconds for 200m.
A shaky performance by the Brits in the relay heats did not breed confidence either. But crucially it gave Gardener, Campbell, Devonish and Lewis-Francis a chance to practise their changeovers for the final. “It didn’t change the belief that we could win,” says Campbell. “If anything, it just instilled in a lot more, because we knew we’d made so many mistakes that we could correct them and do something crazy.”
Devonish adds: “That was was a key point for us because it was a shocking donkey-like performance in some respects in the semi-final, but we still qualified comfortably. So we knew if we ironed these problems out we were gonna rock the world.”
Given this background, the British team had been lambasted by the media. Lewis-Francis remembers: “It was a quite depressing because teams in the past have not achieved the ultimate goal, which was the Olympic gold medal, but with the progression that all four of us were doing in our careers at the time, it was very likely it was possible to happen. And the support just didn’t feel there in the media.
“We knew we were going go out and do the unthinkable. We knew America were always going to be a threat. But we knew our baton skills were 10 out of 10. And we could go out there and put them under pressure.”
Campbell, Gardener and Devonish even went out of their way to front up to media in the mixed zone in order to shield Lewis-Francis from the pressure. With relay squad video technology in its relative infancy compared to today, too, they got hold of extra footage of the changeovers from the heats from the BBC in order to analyse where they had gone wrong.
In the call room before the final, the Americans were loud and raucous, whooping and urging each other on. The Brits in comparison remained quiet and focused.
When the rookie of the team, Lewis-Francis, showed subtle signs of nervousness, Campbell simply tapped him on the shoulder and told him “you’re going to be okay, kid”.
“In the warm up room, these guys definitely kept me It kept me up-spirited,” Lewis-Francis remembers. “They believed in me, because it’s a big task, you know, bringing the baton home.
“After all the work that’s been done in the first three legs, to get it on my leg and to fail at that point would be a disaster. So they made sure that I was in good spirits.
“Steve Perks also made us believe in ourselves and our final warm up went amazing. I think that’s where the belief came from – that we could go out there and upset the applecart.”
As the athletes walked out on to the track, the Brits were buoyed by the sound of God Save the Queen. “We were just about to go out into the lion’s den,” says Gardener, “and we have national anthem be played. That was like the realisation that Kelly Holmes had won another gold medal.
“I vividly remember because I looked at Darren’s eyes and then Marlon’s and Mark’s and the look was one of ‘this is our time’. The British national anthem doesn’t get played much at the Olympics. At the last Olympics we didn’t hear it once. So it really lifted our spirits on that night as we walked out.”
Lewis-Francis recalls: “We were humbly confident if that makes any sense. And it was like we were reading each other’s minds.”
Gardener would lead the British team off against Crawford. The Briton had earned the nickname the ‘Bath Bullet’ due to his blistering start and often unbeatable form over 60m indoors. “The first leg was my home, ever since the World Juniors,” Gardener says, adding that he was given a golden baton to use, which was a slightly different colour to his rivals and another positive omen.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was immense. “It felt like there was a lot of British support and it was magical,” says Lewis-Francis. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. Even in 2002 in Manchester (Commonwealth Games) I didn’t experience anything like that. For me, my feet were already running when I was walking to the start line. We were like race cars firing on all cylinders perfectly tuned and ready to go.”
Then there was a false start by Gardener but the Briton composed himself and, when the race was finally underway, he blasted around the opening bend before thumping the baton into Campbell’s outstretched open hand. “It was years of knowing each other,” says Gardener, “and it all boiled down to that moment in time – an Olympic final.”
Campbell adds: “There was a maximum amount of trust that I had in Jason. There was no need for me to look back. There was no need for me to doubt that he would catch me. All I had to do was just put my hand back and put it in the right place and I knew he’d find me as quickly as possible.
“Again, going into the final we knew we knew the Americans had to make a mistake for us to be able to be victorious. And the only way we’re going to achieve that is by having I would call it perfect changeovers.”
Striding majestically down the back straight, Campbell showed the kind of speed that had earned him a European 100m crown and Olympic 200m silver medal a few years earlier. The Brits were so well drilled he knew he could probably pass the baton to Devonish blindfold – and he says he’d even tried it with his eyes shut in training – and sure enough the exchange was perfect as Devonish, one of the world’s best bend runners, set off.
Meanwhile the Americans endured a poor second changeover. It was the mistake the British team had been hoping they would make and it was one that would cost the US team the race. In comparison to the Brits they had barely practised their changeovers in the build-up to the Games and they paid the penalty. As Gatlin passed the stick to third-leg runner Miller there was a fumble and it came at a crucial moment as part of the British strategy was to put pressure on Miller around the final bend.
As Devonish charged into the home straight he looked for Lewis-Francis’ out-stretched hand and once again delivered a brilliantly smooth exchange. The youngster held a tenuous lead over the US anchorman Greene and Deji Aliu of Nigeri and began to fly down the home straight with the 30-year-old Kansas Cannonball in pursuit.
“The determination, grit and focus was on getting to the line and not messing up or getting tight or letting Maurice Greene pass me,” says Lewis-Francis.
Wide-eyed and roared on by the crowd, Lewis-Francis used every ounce of his prodigious talent during the most important few strides of his life. Lunging at the line, he held Greene off by a mere one hundredth of a second in a dramatic, last-gasp finish.
Lewis-Francis exploded with emotion and joy when he realised his team had won. Soon his team-mates joined him as they celebrated the moment of Olympic immortality.
“Just image being a young kid and then achieving it on that level,” Lewis-Francis explains. “I remember watching Linford Christie racing against Carl Lewis in the Barcelona Olympics and I always said to myself ‘I want to know what that feels like’. So to achieve that in 2004 with my brothers is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever achieved in sport.”
To his credit, Greene graciously paid tribute to the Brits. “They deserved to win,” he admitted.
“We were confident in our craft,” says Lewis-Francis. “Even though I was nervous, it was good nerves. When we went out on to that track it was just a sweet, sweet feeling. If you could bottle that up, and sell it would be all millionaires.”
Campbell adds: “One of the key things before the race was telling Mark that we were going to give him a lead and that he should not be surprised by that. It could be the scariest bit.
“All of a sudden you’ve got this baton in the lead and then suddenly, with 50 metres to go, you realise where you are. You’re at the Olympic Games in the lead in the 4x100m and you start thinking about Maurice Greene chasing you down.
“We all had faith in what Mark was capable of and I think that’s testament to him as a young sprinter. We had that belief that if we gave him a lead, he would hold Greene off. And that’s what he did.”
Gardener estimates that, man for man, the Americans should have been about two metres ahead on each leg and roughly 10 metres in front at the finish, if it went to form.
“It just goes to show that you have to have hope and belief and deliver your absolute maximum, because all we could do is focus on our performance,” says Gardener looking back. “Sometimes when you come off a disappointment your energy can be quite low. We were all pretty beat up by the media but we just used that power to turn things around.”
The headline in AW’s coverage screamed “awesome foursome get gold” as the team clocked 38.07 to the USA’s 38.08 with Nigeria third with 38.23.
“We won by the smallest margin in athletics,” says Devonish. “So it was imperative that we were able to have that complete trust. We helped build it together and that’s why we were so confident when we competed.”
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At the post-race press conference Perks joined the winning team on the main table. Credit was suitably given to squad members Malcolm, Lambert, Nick Smith and Dwayne Grant too. Tongue in cheek, Perks suggested there was still room for improvement as well.
“I think that’s a sprinters thing,” Devonish smiles. “There’s no destination and you’re always trying to find a bit more. So definitely, I can see why he said that. And obviously it was to keep us on the ball for future years.
“You don’t want to get complacent, right?”
In a sad and yet at the same time beautiful twist to the story, the quartet never raced again. Not until 2017, at any rate, when they made a special one-off comeback for charity as retired ex-athletes in the Manchester International (pictured above).
“We rolled back the years,” says Campbell. “And we still won,” adds Gardener.
» Our Race, the untold story of an all-time sporting shock by Trystan Bevan and Ben Mercer is available via Amazon for £14.99