Geoff Capes: Back to give Britain a shot at the title
Twenty-seven years after last pulling on a GB vest, the former World's Strongest Man is nurturing our best home-grown throwers on the road to the London Olympics. Simon Turnbull talks to him
Kieren Kelly has been at it for the best part of an hour, pounding away with a 16lb steel ball from the shot-put circle at the Loughborough University track, struggling to find his rhythm and his range. Finally he pings one dangerously close to the human target of his giant, subtly cajoling coach.
"Yeah!" the 21-year-old exclaims, a smile of quiet satisfaction spreading across his face. The coach is happy too. "It's like digging yourself out of a heap of shit," he says, by way of a compliment.
British athletics has not been quite the same without the inimitable, gargantuan presence of Geoff Capes. It is 27 years since he was last officially involved, collecting his 67th and final Great Britain vest in a fixture against Sweden at Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh a month after the Moscow Olympics.
Now the 6ft 7in big shot is back, lending his 20-odd stone weight to the drive to get sufficient world-class home-grown talent to make a British bandwagon on the road marked London 2012. Twice a week he can be found at the High Performance Centre on the Loughborough campus, working with Kelly and the rest of Britain's best throwers as UK Athletics' consultant lead coach for the shot. His mission is to get British shot-putting back to where he left it.
Capes finished fifth in the Olympic final in 1980, a result that left him numbed with disappointment. If a British athlete placed fifth in the shot in 2012, it would be hailed as a major success. "Oh, it would be," Capes concurs, levering his huge frame into a chair at track-side. "And that is my criteria... we have Carl Myerscough... unfortunately, he blotted his copybook, although I think he should be given a second chance to go to the Olympics, bringing it on a par with other athletes around the rest of the world."
That, however, is not going to happen, the British Olympic Association having already turned down an appeal from the "Blackpool Tower" who broke Capes' 23-year-old British record in 2003 (advancing it from 21.68m to 21.92m) against the BOA bye-law which precludes athletes who have served doping suspensions from representing Britain in the Olympic arena. The blot of a positive drugs test from 1999 remains indelibly inked on Myerscough's book - in relation to the Olympics, at any rate.
"I don't condone it," Capes stresses, stopping short of using the dirty 'd' word. "Don't get me wrong. Everybody's trying to fine-tune athletes. You've got all sorts of weird and wonderful potions you're not quite sure of, like creatine. When I was around, you drank four bottles of gold-topped milk with extra cream, or bull's blood or seaweed from the Fens. All of these scientific things they've developed today... if it's that bloody good, how come we don't seem to have the athletes performing? You may as well go home, eat as much veg as you can, eat as much meat, eggs and milk, because you derive the same amount of stuff out of it. Let's go back to roots and develop."
Not that there will be any going back to quite the same basics from which Capes emerged to win two Commonwealth and two European indoor titles as a shot-putter. One of nine children from a family of "gangers" (strawberry and potato pickers) from Holbeach in Lincolnshire, his High Performance Centre consisted of the crates of spuds he lifted (20 tons in 20 minutes on one occasion) to build his already considerable natural strength. The village "hard case", he was lurching towards the wrong side of the law until Stuart Storey, Holbeach's Olympic hurdler and BBC television athletics commentary team member, took charge of him and channelled his raw-boned aggression into putting the shot.
At 57, the formerly angry young man is now Capes, the crusader - a justice of the peace in the area around his Lincolnshire home. He is many other things besides, having followed his conventional track- and-field career with a life as a competitive strongman (the winner of two World's Strongest Man crowns, five World Highland Games titles), a businessman (founder of a security firm and now a security trainer and consultant) and an actor (veteran of 17 pantomimes). Most unlikely of all, though, he happens to be a champion breeder of budgerigars.
"I have about 300 birds," Capes says. "I've won regional open championship shows. I've won the World Championship Show for my variety of recessive pieds. It's like Crufts, really. It's best to breed and I breed certain types. I've been at it now 35 years. I'm president next year [of the Budgerigar Society of Great Britain]. I just enjoy it as a hobby. It's a relaxant as well. It takes away from the aggression of the other stuff. You can't be aggressive in that environment."
That Capes also possesses a natural aptitude for the nurturing of human talent is clear to see as he guides young Kelly, Scot Thompson, 25, and Rebecca Peake, 24, through their morning session at Loughborough. He does so with a winning blend of wit, expertise and psychology. "Come on, you're lying second," he tells each thrower as they step up to the circle. "Nice and easy... a little bit high... it's got to be gradual to 52."
"Fifty-two degrees," he explains, for the benefit of his non-putting guest. "Angles: 48 to 52 degrees is the optimum angle of delivery." British athletics might not be blessed with the best of throwers these days (even the American-based Myerscough has failed to make an impact on the international stage) but it could not wish for anyone better suited to getting the maximum out of the talent it has.
"It's got to be about developing it long-term rather than short- term," Capes reflects. "I think I've got the nucleus of a good group who can go a long way, because they're so young. But now my job is to make them believe in themselves. Without that instilled in them - I want to win - we may as well piss in the wind, because you've got to know how to win.
"But I'm excited and enthused. I'm getting my enthusiasm back. If I've got a remit and if they encourage me to be involved for the next five or six years I'm quite happy to do so." The athletes are happy too. None of the three involved in the day's session was born when Capes won the last of his 67 GB vests, yet they all know about him and clearly feed off his aura. "He's just a legend," Peake says as we head off the track at the end of the session. "He's the David Beckham of the shot, although Geoff would probably tell you he's better than David Beckham. He's the first name that comes to people when they think of the shot or of the World's Strongest Man. People always say to me: 'Does he still hold the record for tearing up London telephone directories?' "
Before long, the strongman is tearing into a cheese and ham roll in the students' union, holding court about his colourful life and times - such as when he was sent home from the European Championships in Prague in 1978 after thumping a Czech official who unwisely chose to grab him around the neck from behind for not having a number pinned to his tracksuit top.
"All these guards came running after me with machine guns, so I smacked a couple of them as well," Capes, who was a policeman at the time, recounts. "All I was doing was protecting myself. When people are coming at you with fucking guns, you want to get out of there, don't you? So they send me home, slap on the wrist and all that. Headlines when I get back: 'Capes bounces Czech'." The young throwers are cracking up around the table. They know about the legend but not all of it in detail, it seems. Best of all, they love the punch line the coach recalls from a panto appearance at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.
"I played Odd Job, the henchman to the Queen," he says. "I had to take the Princess into the forest and chop her head off. The Princess was Linda Lusardi. You kind of interact with the audience in panto, don't you... so I come out from the dark in the forest and I've got my big chopper in me hand... For the matinee, it was an axe. For the evening performance, it was a chopper.
"And Linda was screaming, 'Oh, no, Odd Job! Don't kill me'. And then I turned to the kids: 'What should I do with her, kids? What should I do with her?' And some little voice shouts out: 'Give her one.' 'Only in Newcastle...' I said."
Animal Magic: The wild life of other sports stars...
Gerry Francis A pigeon-fancier with an extensive loft. He combined both worlds to advise on the animated Disney film 'Valiant', about the RAF's Homing Pigeon Service. Football hard man Duncan Ferguson is also an avid fancier.
Mike Tyson Iron Mike showed his softer side with a fascination for racing pigeons, which he kept in a loft at the home he shared with trainer Cus D'Amato. As well as being a bird expert, he had a white Bengal tiger, Kenya, as another companion.
Glenn McGrath The Australia paceman gets up close and personal with a rhino at a Zimbabwe wildlife sanctuary, but he is more renowned for shooting wild pigs (accurately) at his home town of Narromine, New South Wales.
Roy Keane The Sunderland manager is a huge dog lover, who famously shrugged off the furore following his World Cup walk-out on Ireland in 2002 by taking his pooch for a stroll near his home in Cheshire, seemingly without a care in the world.
The colourful life and times of Geoff Capes
Shot Putter: Commonwealth champion 1974, 1978. European indoor champion 1974, 1976. Three-time Olympian. Winner of 17 national titles, 67 GB vests and 35 England vests.
Strongman: Winner of the World's Strongest Man in 1983 and 1985. Five times World Highland Games champion.
Sprinter: Twice beat Brendan Foster, Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, in challenge races over 200m. Ran 23.7sec.
Actor: Appeared in 17 pantos (oh, yes he did) - alongside Trevor Bannister, Melvyn Hayes, Linda Lusardi, Anna Karen.
Bird Man: World champion budgerigar breeder. Member of the General Council of the Budgerigar Society of Great Britain - also president-elect.
Family Guy: Daughter Emma was English Schools shot champion and Youth Olympics bronze medallist. Son Lewis played American football for the London Monarchs. Has four grandchildren.
For UK athletics records, go to gbrathletics.com/uk/gbnatrec.htm
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