British Rowing: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants*

A view of the start of the Women’s Eights final at the Rio Olympics. Like most of the pictures in this piece, it is taken from Twitter, this particular one from NBC TV’s @NBCSN, posted on Aug 13. I trust that they and the other people whose pictures that I have, if not ‘retweeted’, then ‘redotcomed’, will not mind my sharing them with HTBS readers.
A view of the start of the Women’s Eights final at the Rio Olympics. Like most of the pictures in this piece, it is taken from Twitter, this particular one from NBC TV’s @NBCSN, posted on 13 Aug. I trust that they and the other people whose pictures that I have, if not ‘retweeted’, then ‘redotcomed’, will not mind my sharing them with HTBS readers.

17 August 2016

Tim Koch wraps himself in the Union Flag:

I must start by offering apologies to non-British readers – this is a rather parochial post. It is also slightly random and rambling, a result of several Olympic rowing induced adrenalin rushes (which have still not completely cleared from my bloodstream) mixed with the caffeine that has enabled me to view events from Rio throughout the night. For the third Olympic Regatta in succession, Britain is top of the rowing Medal Table. For those that hold with the Gore Vidal maxim that, ‘It is not enough to succeed, others must fail’, the wins are so much sweeter as victory in the eights was over the Germans (something that British teams are rarely able to do in soccer) and was over the Australians in the fours (something not done very often by Home Nations in cricket or rugby).

A picture of mine from London 2012. Replace the rubber boots with ‘flip flops’ and it could be Copacabana…?
A picture of mine from London 2012. Replace the rubber boots with ‘flip flops’ and it could be Copacabana…?

With their victory in the eight, Andy Hodge and Pete Reed both became triple Olympic Champions, it was a fifth win in a row for GB in the men’s four, Stanning and Glover remained undefeated in the women’s pair since 2011, and the women’s eight and the women’s double became the ‘Cinderella crews’ of the regatta.

@AlexGregoryGB, bow of the winning GB four, tweeted: ‘This is what it was all about’.
@AlexGregoryGB, bow of the winning GB four, tweeted: ‘This is what it was all about’.

For those Brits with a knowledge of rowing history, the joy is compounded as, between 1948 and 1984, Britain, the country that codified rowing as a sport, won no international rowing events. I wrote about how this change came about in a post that followed the London 2012 Games, titled ‘… nobody expects you to win – you are bloody English’. It gave credit to Bob Janousek (the coach of the British rowing team in the 1970s), Steve Redgrave (the man who proved that Brits could be world beaters), Jürgen Gröbler (who has now coached 12 GB crews to Olympic gold) and the funding provided by the National Lottery. Four years on, it is still true, though former BBC journalist Martin Gough felt that I should have included the contribution of Sir David Tanner, the Performance Director of British Rowing since 1996. The Daily Telegraph’s Rachel Quarrell has written: ‘Under (Tanner’s) aegis, the GB rowing team has established a national training base, an army of coaches and support staff, and a racing record that is the envy of the world’.

@zoedetoledo posted on 31 July. The GB women’s cox wrote: ‘Great friends know how weird you are, but still choose to be seen with you in public’.
@zoedetoledo posted on 31 July. The GB women’s cox wrote: ‘Great friends know how weird you are, but still choose to be seen with you in public’.

Tanner has publicly identified one unsatisfactory part of the British performance, the relative failure of the GB lightweights, who he says ‘fell a bit short’. Their failure to make a final meant that British Rowing fell one below their target of six medals of all alloys. 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. While rowing did fall below its target, I would hope that the quality of its medal wins means that its funding is not cut.

@AlexGregoryGB posted on 5 Aug. Eight days before the Olympic Regatta started: ‘It’s starting to feel real now’.
@AlexGregoryGB posted on 5 Aug. Eight days before the Olympic Regatta started: ‘It’s starting to feel real now’.

For all the successes of British rowing in recent years, it still remains a fact that only four Britons have ever achieved world single sculling titles. These were won at the Olympics of 1908, 1912 and 1924 and in the lightweight sculls at the World Championships, 1993-1995. Britain’s best single sculler in a long time and the Bronze Medalist in London, Alan Campbell, missed out on his fourth Olympic final at Rio, though this may have been due to illness. A British male or female world champion in the single remains an elusive goal.

@Helenglovergb, posted on 13 Aug. The bow of the winning women’s pair wrote: ‘Four years of hard work and I could have just got one for a couple of quid at Copacabana’.
@Helenglovergb, posted on 13 Aug. The bow of the winning women’s pair wrote: ‘Four years of hard work and I could have just got one for a couple of quid at Copacabana’.

As I write, Team GB is second in the overall Games Medal Table, below the United States but above China. While it is likely that the final result will be third overall, this is still a remarkable improvement. Only 20 years ago Britain finished 36th at Atlanta – just below Ethiopia. The single British Gold in 1996 was courtesy of Messrs Pinsent and Redgrave. Once again, rowing showed the way.

@PhelanHill, posted on 4 Aug. The cox of the winning GB eight (right) took this picture with BBC commentator, Garry Herbert, famously known as ’the cox that cried’ http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/04/14/article-2604146-1D1A849100000578-102_634x425.jpg when he took Gold with the Searle brothers in the coxed pair at the 1992 Olympics. Garry must love this picture, he looks huge compared to Phelan.
@PhelanHill, posted on 4 Aug. The cox of the winning GB eight (right) took this picture with BBC commentator, Garry Herbert, famously known as ’the cox that cried’ when he took Gold with the Searle brothers in the coxed pair at the 1992 Olympics. Garry must love this picture, he looks huge compared to Phelan.

Before I bathe in too much reflected glory, it should be noted that the 14 Olympic rowing classes are traditionally won by a reasonable spread of countries and this year was no exception. In 2016, multiple Gold Medal winners were Britain (3), Germany (2) and New Zealand (2) – but seven other countries won one event each. In 2012, it was GB (4), NZ (3), Germany (2) – with five countries getting a single Gold. In 2008, the numbers were GB (2), Australia (2) – and ten other countries victorious in one rowing class. Single rowing Golds went to nine countries in 2004, to four in 2000, and to six in 1998. Since 2000, 21 nations have won at least one rowing Gold.

@PhelanHill, posted 4 Aug. Overlooking the Olympic boat park. Nice pieces on the surprising history of boat racing in Rio are on worldrowing.com
@PhelanHill, posted on 4 Aug. Overlooking the Olympic boat park. Nice pieces on the surprising history of boat racing in Rio are on worldrowing.com, here and here.

In modern times, no rowing nation has won more than four of the 14 events in a single Olympic Regatta and you have to go back to the days when the professionals of the Eastern Bloc took on the amateurs of the West to see dominance such as East Germany’s eight wins in 1992 and eleven wins in 1980 (the year of the U.S. led boycott).

@PhelanHill, posted 2 Aug. The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.
@PhelanHill, posted on 2 Aug. The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

What of the future? As the Olympics strive for gender equality by the 2020 Tokyo Games, the 14 rowing events (currently divided by eight for men and six for women) will have to be split evenly, seven – seven, with an equal number of male and female competitors. If the final changes result in an increased number of lightweight events, then it is arguable that the spread of winning nations will increase as those ethnic groups that are generally relatively physically ‘small’ will have a better chance of success. The proposal that the men’s lightweight four event is removed and that a women’s heavyweight four competition is introduced may be the reluctant favourite among traditional rowing nations – but this bias in favour of heavyweights will not, rightly or wrongly, increase the spread of winning countries. The various proposals are nicely summarised on row2k.com.

@Helenglovergb. Kit and pose, 2016 Olympics.
@Helenglovergb. Kit and pose, 2016 Olympics.
Compare with kit and pose, 1912 Olympics.
Compare with kit and pose, 1912 Olympics.

Of course, change is never popular but when it does come, it is often soon accepted as the norm. There were opponents to the introduction of women’s rowing in the Olympics in 1976 and, when lightweight rowing was added to the 1996 Games, there was the old joke from some about also introducing midget basketball. In 2002, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that only combat sports and weightlifting should have weight categories – but the Executive Board allowed rowing to continue the privilege. There are some that would like to see rowing out of the Olympics altogether as they perceive it as too much a so-called ‘First World’ sport. However, according to ‘Fatsculler’, Daniel Spring, the message from the IOC seems to be ‘adapt or die’. The four years of the 33rd Olympiad will be an interesting time for international rowing.

@PeteReed, posted 15 Aug. The ‘5’ man in the winning men’s eight wrote: ‘A shot from the Olympic Village this evening. One of my favourites ever’. Reed is an enthusiastic and talented photographer and his Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/petereed/?hl=en is well worth looking at.
@PeteReed, posted on 15 Aug. The ‘5’ man in the winning men’s eight wrote: ‘A shot from the Olympic Village this evening. One of my favourites ever’. Reed is an enthusiastic and talented photographer and his Instagram page  is well worth looking at.

* If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Isaac Newton (1676).

2 comments

  1. Hi

    “…as, between 1948 and 1984, Britain, the country that codified rowing as a sport, won no international rowing events.”

    Interesting article but what about the lightweight eight that won Gold in Amsterdam in 1977? Including Dan Topolski and coxed by Colin Moynihan.

    As an aside they were coach and cox of the Oxford eight that we (Trinity College Dublin) rowed against in December 1976 in Egypt.

    Best regards

    Ted O’Morchoe

    • Thank you Ted. Yes, a British crew won lightweight eights at the 1977 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam. John McConnell has also pointed out that there was another British win at the 1977 Worlds when Baillieu and Hart beat the East Germans by nearly two seconds in the double scull. Checking other Worlds results, GB won lightweight eights again in 1980 at Hazewinkel. Glad to put the record straight but these rare wins perhaps only emphasise how poor British international rowing was for many years.

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