At the end of August and beginning of September, the World Rowing Championships were held at Bosbaan, Amsterdam. Writer and journalist Christopher Dodd, historian at the River and Rowing Museum, was there covering the events for the institution. Last time the World Championships were organised at Bosbaan was in 1977. As a matter of fact, Dodd was then covering the races for the newspaper the Guardian. It was another era, he writes in this history piece about rowing during the Cold War. Dodd writes:
Watching finals at the 2014 world championships on the windy Bosbaan reminded me of the Cold War. When I reported from Amsterdam on the champs in 1977, the freeze-up between the East and the West was intense. There was an Iron Curtain from north Finland to Yugoslavia on the Adriatic (now proposed to be re-cycled as a bike path, an inspired idea). In sport, and in rowing in particular, there were two battles going on. One was East versus West, which in 1977 was no contest. The other was the Soviet Union versus East Germany, with the East in the ascendant.
Rumour added piquancy to regattas during the Cold War – rumours of skulduggery, suspicions of doping, and hints of absconding athletes. Amsterdam 1977 had a record entry of 883 competitors from 33 countries and a large dose of rumour. Its social life began for me with the arrival of Geoffrey Page, the grandee Telegraph correspondent, at the wheel of the “Pagemobile” (alias his VW camper van, which in those days did vast steady state runs through Europe). On board was his wife Paddy and a cask of vin rouge from Cannes after Geoffery had spent a month with brush and palette on the corniche selling his works to passing tourists. It was raining, so several of us climbed aboard the Pagemobile and helped him to drink his gains.
Rumour began on day one. A Russian or more had vanished when a crew was withdrawn before the heats (two years before in Nottingham, a Polish oarsman vanished as soon as he reached Heathrow). FISA bigwigs were tight-lipped and Soviet interpreters suddenly forgot their English. Inquiries hit a wall of silence. When the truth came out, this was a genuine case of illness or injury.
Russian radio roulette
Meanwhile, a couple of us reporters were tipped off by a boathouse official that Soviet coaches were using radios for shore to ship messages during racing. We set about unravelling the story in the hope that we had something really big. Unable to coax anyone to tell me anything, I eventually left the Bosbaan for a quiet public call box that I used for filing copy to the Guardian unheard by other journalists and asked for the control tower at nearby Schiphol airport.
To my immense surprise I was put straight through to the duty officer who confirmed that there had been interference in Russian during the hours of racing. I had my exclusive – until I asked if there was an explanation. Yes, he said, it comes from a radio station in Moscow with whom we are great friends. Every now and again atmospheric conditions bring the station to us, and we have a procedure for dealing with it. Bang went my story. But it turned out that coaches were using radios for coaching during practice – Japanese coaches.
Wet rot and tommy rot
The biggest controversy in 1977 turned out to be the water. The Bosbaan lake was dug by 1,500 men in 1937 as part of a work creation programme during the depression. It was prone to gusts through gaps in the surrounding trees. Its steep banks did not absorb ripples. Rowing on the lake soon had the effect of rolling the water as if rotating a sausage on a spit. Crosswind played havoc, whipping up white caps on high-numbered lanes and calming the water on the grandstand side.
In 1977, the weather was awful all week, and finals day was particularly vile. FISA had no contingency plans to deal with cross wind, wind shadow and blatant unfairness. In fact, they declared that everything was fine with the lanes. The FISA commissioner in charge, Christopher Davidge, was quoted in the press as saying that after tests, ‘all lanes were found to be fair’.
Davidge was the only man in Amsterdam who believed that. I reported in the Guardian that wet rot was setting in at the Bosbaan, and fairness was difficult to detect, pointing out that in the semi-finals, lane 1 scored two firsts, two seconds and one third; lane 2 scored two firsts, one second and two thirds; lane 6 scored one third, one fourth and three fifth places.
Jim Railton of The Times and I found our own evidence. We went to the start early one day with oranges and compared their course when launched from lanes 1 and 6. Furthermore, crews were making bottle and orange tests of their own during practice in the persistent cross-headwind. Their readings suggested up to four lengths difference between lanes 1 and 6.
FISA’s stance was bullshit.
Here are the 1977 World Championships men’s finals (no sound!):
Here are the 1977 World Championships women’s finals (no sound!):
Supermites at the drop of a Penney
Things have changed somewhat since. The Bosbaan has been widened and the banks are more forgiving. FISA now has a fairness commission with a raft of contingency plans for bad weather. That’s not a cure-all, though. This year I met a very experienced member of it tearing his hair out in despair at the hopelessness of the task as the wind went this way and that. There are probably a few crews who think they were robbed.
Still, it wasn’t as bad as 1977, which was a critical time for British rowing. A year before, Bob Janousek’s ‘Pieces of Eight’ crew and Mike Hart and Chris Baillieu had won silver medals at the Montreal Olympics, thus restoring GB to the Olympic podium where it has remained ever since. Hart and Baillieu won gold at the 1977 worlds, and the Supermites of London RC, alias the national lightweight eight sponsored, curiously, by Nottinghamshire County Council, also clocked a glorious gold by 7/100ths second from the Spanish crew.
This was partly achieved by dropping cox Ray Penney in favour of Pat Sweeney for the competition. Penney had steered the Supermites for the season, but being a mature accountant, couldn’t lose the 5 lbs that would reduce him to the minimum weight. Sweeney, cox of the 1976 eight and coach of the 1977 pair John Roberts and Jim Clark, who wound up with a silver medal, was on the minimum. Sweeney tried to give his medal to Penney, but Penney refused it. One of the oarsmen aboard the eight was Dan Topolski, coach of Oxford at the time. He was at the Bosbaan 37 years later and invited to take part in some of the medal presentations.
Excelling pair, four, quad and eight
1977 saw Britain on the road to recovery. 2014 saw Britain at the top of the game – three golds and several other colours in a more numerous and more competitive competition. Notable were the men’s eight and four for stamping their authority in champion fashion, the new men’s pair of Foad and Langridge who came closer to unbeaten-for-six-seasons Murray and Bond (NZ), and the men’s quad for giving the Ukrainians the fright of their life, missing the gold by a cigarette paper.
Thinking caps of the seventies
The sport was redolent with ideas and preconceptions of change in the 1977 – several of which have come to pass. A medical congress in Amsterdam proposed that FISA move towards the International Olympic Committee’s position on drugs that implied that, as a discipline depending on intensive training, rowing should permit special dieting through vitamins and minerals, plus massaging and sauna for recovery. The statement went on: ‘Attempts to improve physical performance by artificial means – medical, chemical or pharmaceutical – should be discouraged because of the physical and psychological risks involved.’
FISA held a congress in Monte Carlo later in 1977 to discuss dropping coxes in all events bar eights, reducing the distance men raced to 1,000 metres, and the introduction of competition for under-23s to plug the gap between juniors and seniors.
Meanwhile, the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing) set up a panel to discuss the amateur status rule. The Times alleged that clarification was necessary in regard to sponsorship, with crews often appearing on the water like floating billboards. Correspondent Railton suggested that the words ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ be removed altogether, pointing out that the Sports Aid Foundation which raised its support for top level sport from industry to enable athletes to practise full time, was in an invidious position as well as being the future of funding elite sport. This was the beginning of the end of the amateur status rule that had screwed up the country where amateur rowing started for so many years.
PS: At Amsterdam regatta in 1980, the defection rumour turned true when an East German was spirited away to a houseboat on the Amstel. I wouldn’t wish the Cold War on anybody, but it sure made the job of reporting more interesting.