‘… nobody expects you to win – you are bloody English’

The BBC building on the site of the 1908 Olympic Stadium with the Medal Table Memorial.

HTBS’s Tim Koch writes from London:

The Thirtieth Olympiad has ended. Every host nation puts their own ‘national stamp’ on the Games but perhaps the UK has done this more than most. Continuing the theme of doing things in a British way, it would be allegedly typical understatement say that the 2012 London Olympics went ‘rather well’ and the host nation ‘did not do too badly’. No one was going to beat the United States or China in the medal table so the race was always for third place – a place which the host nation won.

Britain will never better their 1908 record but 2012 is their most successful Games in modern times.

Great Britain also did ‘reasonably’ in the rowing. In what the President of the International Rowing Federation called ‘the best Olympic regatta ever’ the forty seven rowers and scullers of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all qualified for their finals and again made Britain the top rowing nation with four wins. However, this was not always the case. From 1948 Britain went for 36 years without winning a world rowing title. How did British international rowing make the dramatic turnaround in its fortunes? I would suggest that much of the credit can be given to four individuals.

Number one is the man who, in 1974, uttered the ‘bloody English’ phrase to a squabbling crew – Bob Janousek. In his excellent review of Chris Dodd’s book Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians, Göran Buckhorn says of British international 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.”

At the end of the 1960s British international rowing had reached its lowest ebb and the Amateur Rowing Association, in a very rare inspired move, invited Bob, a non-English speaking foreigner who was unknown outside of Czechoslovakia, to take charge of the coaching of what passed as the national squad. Top level rowing in Britain was ‘amateur’ in both its true and its derogative sense. Different clubs fought to have their chosen crew to represent the country rather than put the best individuals together. If crews were mixed, their styles were often incompatible. Scientific training on land and water was virtually unknown. There was little money and few facilities. With a lot of time and effort Bob managed to change much of this and the result was that a British eight won silver at the 1974 World Championships and also at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He ended the age of the ‘Gentleman Amateurs’ and the ‘Private Navies’ and proved that British crews could compete with the best in the world.
The second person I would credit with turning British international rowing around is Steve Redgrave. Of course, the man who won five golds in five Olympics rowed in crew boats, but it was Redgrave who inspired these boats, crews were built around him and partners had to come up to his level. When an athlete shows that something can be done, others will follow. Once Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile in 1954, within months others did the same and today it is the standard of all male middle distance runners. Steve personified the fact that a British oarsman could be a world beater. Credit must also go Mike Spracklen, Redgrave’s coach until 1988, though he, in turn, was a protégée of Bob Janousek.

Photo: British Rowing

Some people suggested that Steve was a ‘one off’ and that, once he retired, British rowing would cease to be so successful. They reckoned without another non-English speaking foreigner from the Eastern Bloc, a man who has now coached at least one win in each of the last ten Olympic regattas, six for GB, Jürgen Gröbler (on the right). A product of what was then the world’s best rowing nation, the former East Germany, he became Leander’s Chief Coach in 1991 and in 1992 took up the same post with the then Amateur Rowing Association. In the words of BR’s website ‘….since then he has been responsible for an exceptional and sustained period of success on the world stage’. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Simon Briggs noted:

“Gröbler is not exactly noted as a technical coach……. [his] talents lie in manipulating the physical data. He logs every ergometer time-trial, every piece on the water. Then he calculates when to drive his athletes harder, when to taper off their efforts, and when to break the boats up and reconfigure them in a new formation. In his ability to run a fleet, he is the heir of Admiral Nelson.”

An honorary knighthood must surely be forthcoming for a man whose record is never likely to be bettered.

The final person that I would credit for the revival of British international rowing has nothing to do with our sport – he is a famously dull politician with an interest in cricket. The contribution that John Major, the British Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, made to rowing and British sport in general has already been well chronicled in a recent HTBS posting. In 1994, Major approved the establishment of a National Lottery with 28% of takings going to ‘good causes’ including sport and the arts. This was too late to have much effect on the 1996 Atlanta Games and Redgrave and Pinsent brought home the only British gold and Britain was seventh in the regatta medal table. In the next few years however, Lottery money began to ‘kick in’ and the returns were rapid. In the words of Allan Massie: ‘Individual talent and determination were for the first time properly supported’.

Andy Triggs Hodge – one of Britain’s ten gold medal winning rowers.

In Sydney in 2000 Britain athletes won ten golds overall and its rowers were third in the regatta table. In Athens in 2004, there was a slight plateau and Britain got nine golds and was again in third place in rowing. In the run up to Beijing the funding to UK sport was quadrupled to £235m and the 2008 Games saw nineteen golds for Britain and it reached first place in the regatta table. London 2012 brought twenty eight British wins and the host country retained its position as the top rowing nation.

The reverse of the London medal.

UK Sport does not distribute Lottery money randomly; it is done with ‘tough love’. The more successful the sport, the more money it gets, less success may mean less money. Naturally rowing has benefited greatly, getting over £27m / $42m for the Olympiad just past. The BBC website reports:

“No other sport exceeded their (2012) target by the distance rowing achieved, winning nine medals to the six demanded of them…. (rowing) will have few worries about sitting down with UK Sport for its performance review.”

The most successful British sports, the elite teams of athletics, cycling, sailing, swimming and rowing, account for half of all the UK’s Olympic team funding.  While two thirds of Great Britain’s sporting teams reached their targets in London, nine sports failed to reach the standard set and will have to wait to see if their budgets are cut.

The BBC says that the Lottery (which of course is a ‘voluntary tax’ as no one has to buy a Lottery ticket) contributed 60% of the funding for Team GB in the run up to London 2012. The other 40% came from the taxpayer – about 80 pence/$1.25 per person. Continuing with British understatement, I would say that this was not a bad price to pay – not bad at all.

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