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