I have admired Chris Dodd’s writing on rowing for three decades. I have followed his writing in The Guardian and later his short stint at The Independent. For years I subscribed to ARA’s magazine Regatta, which was founded by Dodd, giving Great Britain at the time two quality rowing magazines as Rowing already existed, published by the boat building company Aylings – nowadays ARA is called British Rowing and its magazine Rowing & Regatta. And of course, I have read all of Dodd’s brilliant rowing books: Henley Royal Regatta (1981), The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race (1983), Boating (1983), The Story of World Rowing (1992), Battle of the Blues: The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race from 1829 (ed. with John Marks; 2004), and Water Boiling Aft: London Rowing Club, the First 150 Years 1856-2006 (2006).
When Dodd began his career as a rowing correspondent in the beginning of the 1970s, he joined a small group of outstanding rowing journalists, to mention the maybe most famous ones: Dickie Burnell, Desmond Hill, Geoffrey Page, Jim Railton, and John Rooda. Dodd is the only one left of these gentlemen of the rowing press, and today he has to be regarded as the doyen of rowing writers and historians. Nowadays, he is writing for the electronic rowing publication Rowing Voice, which he co-founded, and since 1997 he is the curator and historian at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, a beautiful institution he also co-founded.
With this background, or should I write, firm base to stand on, Dodd is highly qualified to pen the story about how British rowing rose from pure misery to once again have crews standing on the medal podiums at the World Championships and Olympic Games. His new book is called Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians, which was published in March, and it splendidly tells the tale of a forgotten era of British rowing. It might be hard for rowing people these days to understand how our time’s greatest rowing nation, which ‘invented’ modern rowing in the beginning of the 1800s and which has fed rowing giants like Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, had a two-decade-long ‘down period’. From after the Olympic Games in 1948 to the beginning of the 1970s (with the exception of an Olympic silver in the coxless four in 1964) British rowing had been without any medals and barely made it to the finals in the World Championships and Olympic regattas.
After the end of the 1960s when British rowing had hit rock bottom, ARA decided to do something drastic: invite a coach from Prague, who had Olympic bronze medals as a member of the Czech eights in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, to organise and guide the national teams and to educate the coaches who trained the crews, and to write the first ARA coaching training manual. His name was Bohumil Janoušek and he arrived in London in October 1969. Besides his Olympic rowing medals, he had two more key attributes in his personal baggage “that would serve him well in the hide-bound and divided rowing society that he had parachuted into” Dodd writes, “He had a degree in sports science from Charles University in Prague. And he spoke no English.”
Of course, not everyone liked or approved that help was coming from the outside, especially not some of the coaches from the old system with ‘private navies’. It was difficult for a coach to train a crew which had members from different clubs, which Bob Janousek, the name he took in England, soon discovered when he went to coach the national eight that had oarsmen from Leander and Thames Tradesmen. There was a huge difference in styles and techniques whether the rowers came from Cambridge, Leander or Tradesmen. Nor did the oarsmen understand how to row at a steady rate for 20 minutes; in the beginning they all rowed their hearts out and totally collapsed after 9 minutes. Janousek had brought with him some coaching ideas from Karl Adam of the Ratzeburg Rowing Academy, but it was not easy to apply them to the British scene.
|Janousek, cover of Rowing 1975|
At first, the Czech coach kept his distance from the national crews, allowing their coaches to train the different boats, but no British crew managed to reach the A-finals at the 1970 World Championships at St Catherines, the 1971 European Championships at Copenhagen, and the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich (exception of a fifth place by a Leander double). As Janousek had decided to stay in Britain with his family and thereby disobeying the Czech rowing government body to come home, he did not go to the 1973 European Championships which were held in Moscow – with the Cold War lingering about, as a ‘defector’ it was not likely that he would be allowed to go back to Britain.
In September 1973, Janousek decided to take a more active role as the National coach and sent out a letter to a selected group of oarsmen inviting them to join the National Squad which was going to be personally coached by him. He ended his letter by writing “I cannot promise you medals, even though this is what we shall try for, but I can promise that it will be worth the effort.” None of them, including Janousek, knew how hard the road was going to be.
At the first international regatta for the newly formed National team of oarsmen from Leander and Tradesmen at Mannheim, Germany, in June 1974, they were rowing in a coxless four and a coxed four, each crew mixed between the clubs and with a nervous rivalry crawling outside their skin. After their repecharge heat the men in the coxless four suddenly started a fist fight within (!) the crew. In the mini bus back to their barracks Janousek tried to cool down his crews. In his broken English he said, which also underlined how bad British rowing was at the time: “It’s very important we don’t start to argue with each other. Keep calm guys, nobody expects you to win – you are bloody English. The English never win anything.”
While Janousek’s oarsmen kept on struggling within the crews, with their foreign coach, and with their different styles, at least with the Czech coach came structure to their training both on the water and on land. Janousek was also constantly present, and without the oarsmen’s knowledge he was molding them into competitive crews. At the 1974 World Championships in Lucerne, the only thing Janousek told his eight, when they went out to row in the final, was: “enjoy yourselves”. Despite a good start, the British eight with L. D. Robertson, W. G. Mason, J. Clark, D. L. Maxwell, H. P. Matheson, T. J. Crooks, J. C. Yallop, stroke F. L. Smallbone, and cox P. J. Sweeney were last at the 500-metre mark, but they passed West Germany at 750 metres. They had a ‘big burn’ at 1,100 metres when they got closer to the rest of the field. Then cox Sweeney began talking the crew through the other crews, moving past the East Germans, the Russians, and close to the finish line, the New Zealanders. The British eight never managed to over-come the U.S. crew, but to everyone’s surprise Janousek’s oarsmen took a silver medal, and it was also a big surprise that the Americans took the gold, both these crews beating the East Germans, Russians, and the mighty crew from New Zealand, who had done so brilliantly the last couple of years.
Next year’s World Championships were held in Nottingham, and the coxed four (R.J. Ayling, Crooks, Matheson, R. C. Lester, and cox Sweeney) took a fourth place as did the coxless four (Mason, Clark, Robertson, and Yallop), while the double sculls (M. J. Hart and C. L. Baillieu) took a bronze medal repeating their position both at the European Championships in 1973 and the World Championships in 1974. The 1975 results were not as good as Janousek and his oarsmen wanted especially on their ‘home waters’, but they quickly had to switch focus on the following year’s upcoming big event, the Olympic Games in Montreal.
|Bob’s Boys in 1975: Lester, Matheson, Clark, Yallop, Aylings, Sweeney, Crooks, Robertson, Manson, and Janousek.|
When the Brits arrived at the Olympic basin at Isle Notre-Dame, Montreal, not only did they have the ‘old’ Empacher eight which had served them well, but also the Carbon Tiger, a much lighter boat made of composite plastic and carbon fibre. The new boat worried a lot of their competitors, but while it was very fast on the water it had issues with the rigging and shoulders, and at the end it was not used. Maybe Clark put it best: “If I win a gold medal I don’t want a bastard telling me it was because of the boat.”
Those of you who know your Olympic rowing history remember that Great Britain did not take a gold medal at the Olympic rowing regatta in Montreal, the championship title went to East Germany, with the British boys coming in as a very good second boat. Or did the British actually win? To this day, some in the crew, which on that day was: Robertson, Smallbone, Clark, Maxwell, Matheson, Crooks, Yallop, Lester, and Sweeney, still think that they were the non-cheating boat, the clean crew, which was not on any drugs. Rumour had it that the East Germans were on ‘something’, pills or got some ‘vitamin’ injections by their coach before a race. At the end of the book, Dodd brings up the question and debates whether it would be possible. Nothing was ever proved, so the question still is unanswered, and will probably never be answered.
In his ‘foreword’ Chris Dodd writes that Pieces of Eight is not a book of rowing history, but a ‘collective memory of a coach, a group of oarsmen, and a reporter who followed them in their day. It is therefore, a memoir, not a history.’ Well, whatever you would like to call it, a memoir, a rowing biography, a history book, it is a well-written, damn good book! And it has an important story to tell, as one man, single handedly torn down the social barrier, which only a foreigner could do who did not understand the English class system. After the 1976 Olympic Games Bob Janousek handed in his resignation as the National team coach. His next job was as a ‘baker’, or that is at least what he called himself when he joined John Vigurs to start their boat building company Carborcraft. When the company failed, Janousek established his own company Janousek Racing, which became world-known. What happened to Janousek’s oarsmen? Many of them continued to be involved in rowing in some way, some active rowers, coaches, or rowing advocates, and today some of them are Henley Stewards. They all think fondly of Janousek, he was, one of them said, “the tenth man in the boat”.
Dodd has used his interviews with everyone who was involved in the revival of British rowing at this time in a most effective way, allowing them to reflect and think back of their glory days as Janousek’s men. While it might not always work to have the objects of your book to move back and forth in time, I do not think there is a problem in Dodd’s book to have the oarsmen to ‘pop in’ in present time to leave comments and arguments if a thing was right or not.
Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians is indeed a must-read, must-have book. If you would like to understand how British rowing has managed to reach its high level of today – when we are only weeks away from the Olympic Games in London where the British yet again will meet glory on the water – this book will tell you how it all started, how one man taught the ‘bloody English’ how to row again.
Order a copy of Chris Dodd’s Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians, here.