On the eve of the world rowing championships, Britain has lost one of its Olympic heroes with the tragic death of Andy Holmes.

The 51-year-old, who won gold medals at the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics with Britain's most successful Olympian, Sir Steve Redgrave, has died of Weil's disease, or leptospirosis.

He became unwell last week after competing in a sculling marathon this month and died on Monday.

Weil's disease is a rare but potentially fatal water-borne bacterial infection linked with the urine of rats.

The bacteria is commonly transmitted between animals but it is extremely rare for humans to catch it and happens from infection through the eyes, mouth, nose or cuts.

Holmes was in intensive care within hours of being admitted to hospital and moved to life support after a severe reaction.

Until Holmes and Redgrave won the coxed four gold in 1984 with Martin Cross and Richard Budgett, it had been 36 years since Britain had won an Olympic rowing title.

That win transformed the sport in Britain and heralded a golden era, with Redgrave going on to five Olympic crowns and others such as Sir Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster moving the sport to a lofty pedestal.

Holmes and Redgrave also won gold in the coxless pair at Seoul in 1988 and bronze in the coxed pair. "I was completely shocked," Britain team manager David Tanner said yesterday.

"He's an icon from the era when GB rowing was stepping back into the top end of Olympic success."

Although Holmes, whose fifth child was born a month ago, had no direct involvement with the British squad gathering at Lake Karapiro for the world championships, "he's a classic name to our team," Tanner added.

There will be links to that remarkable era at the world champs, which start on Sunday.

Redgrave is coming to New Zealand in a broadcasting role; his wife, Lady Redgrave, is Britain's team doctor.

Cross is also heading this way to do commentary and media work.