It can be difficult for sportsmen and women to understand where their talent comes from: is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it all down to opportunity, chance and luck?
“It could be any of those,” says Dai Greene, the reigning world, European and Commonwealth 400m hurdling champion. “But mainly, with me, it’s because of Ryan Giggs.”
Giggs, for readers unfamiliar with the world of international football, is a leading proponent of the game. He also plays with his left foot, and, as a former striker for the Welsh national team, is someone whom Greene looked up to when young.
“I’m right-footed, but I desperately wanted to be Giggs when I was younger,” says Greene. “So me and my brother would be in the garden, dribbling the ball around all day, and I’d always use my left foot so I could be like Giggs. It got to the stage where I was just as good off my left and right feet.”
Fast-forward a decade and Greene is now, at 26, one of the best hurdlers in the world. The reason? “Because I can hurdle off both feet. It’s one of the biggest strengths you can have as a hurdler. It’s been a huge advantage to me to be able to do that, and it’s all because of Ryan Giggs. If I win gold in London, I’ll have to call him and thank him.”
Greene is on sparkling form for our interview. It’s a cold, miserable May evening, but he’s bursting with life as he explains that he’s just returned from a stint of warm-weather training in Portugal. He’s in the shape of his life, and, in a little over two months, will be striding out in front of 80,000 people and millions of television viewers around the world as hot favourite to win Olympic gold.
“The Olympic Games is so exciting,” he says in his soft, south Wales accent (he is from Llanelli), with a wonderful childlike giggle. “I’ve won everything else. The Olympic gold medal is the dream come true now ... the thing I want more than anything. All my plans are on hold, everything is on one side. I’m just focused on the Games.”
It’s not quite that simple, of course. Nothing is in elite sport, and before he competes in the Olympics he has about 10 other races still to run. He would normally taper off his training before each one, but this year he won’t. “I’ll continue heavy training all the way through, so I don’t lose any fitness, enabling me to peak for the Olympics. It means I’ll be running at less than 100 per cent in the races beforehand, but I have to put my ego to one side and know that if I’m beaten along the way, it’s because I’m saving my best for the Games.”
In pursuit of total fitness, he trains six days a week, watches his diet and has cut out socialising altogether. He says his only nights out these days are rather gentle ones, with his girlfriend, Sian, or walks with his new puppy, Buzz.
Greene doesn’t resent the long hours of training and the sacrifices he makes because, for him, training is especially vital. It’s not only his route to athletics glory but something that has changed his life. “I suppose you could say that athletics has saved me,” he says. “I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true; the training I’ve done and the way I live for athletics has turned my life round.”
Greene has suffered with epilepsy since he was 17. As a teenager he discovered that something as simple as a late night, too much alcohol, or even missing a meal could trigger a seizure; he’d lose consciousness and fall to the floor convulsing. “It was terrifying for people around me, especially for mum and dad,” he says.
But when he was taken to see a specialist, a drug called sodium valporate was recommended, and Greene found his training suffered enormously under its impact. It made him feel drowsy, unwell and run-down. If he carried on taking it, his athletics would suffer, but if he came off it, he might suffer seizures again. He had no idea what to do, so five years ago he decided to go back to the specialist and ask for advice. In short, he wanted to know whether he could come off the drug so he could train harder.
“My mum and dad were very worried about it, and wanted me to keep taking it, but I’d come to realise that I wasn’t going to make it to the top of athletics because I felt so tired when I trained. I spoke to my consultant and I explained that I wouldn’t be drinking, I’d be physically fit and wouldn’t have any late nights. From now on it was just about athletics.” The consultant told Greene that with that sort of lifestyle, and if he genuinely avoided alcohol and late nights, he could stop taking the drug.
Greene has stuck closely to the lifestyle plan and he hasn’t had a seizure since.
“I’ve got my life in order and I understand my body,” he says. “I don’t have wild nights out with my mates, but I still have a lot of fun. And when you’re training for something like the Olympic Games, working hard and getting lots of sleep is all you can do anyway, so I’m living the perfect life for dealing with epilepsy as well as for being an Olympian.”
As the Games get closer, Greene says that life is like being in a bubble; it’s just him, his girlfriend and his coach.
“I don’t listen too much to what is happening outside the bubble; my life is all about getting ready for 2012. You have to divorce yourself from the rest of the world.”
When he runs in the Olympics, his top priority will be to win gold, but along the way he admits that he’s also keen to beat the record that has been held by Kriss Akabusi since 1982, and become the fastest British man over the 400m hurdles. Akabusi’s record time is 47.82secs and Greene’s best time is 47.88secs. There’s very little in it.
“Every time I see Kriss, we joke about how he needs to enjoy being the British record holder while it lasts because I’ll soon take it from him. The truth is that it would be nice to break the record, but it would be brilliant to win gold; that’s my real aim this year.”
Alison Kervin is a former chief sports feature writer of The Times and The Daily Telegraph