Chinese Whispers

The Lords’ Crew passes the Houses of Parliament after finishing the 2016 Lords v Commons Boat Race.

3 July 2018 

As Henley Royal approaches, Chris Dodd muses on parliamentary rowing and Chairman Steve.

On a beautiful sunny day around the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on innocent pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, I ventured to the Houses of Parliament for my first taste of the parliamentary rowing group. Curiosity drove me to join as an associate member, and of course I failed at the first hurdle, which was to get to the meeting on time. I was warned that clearing security and negotiating the long trail to committee room 15 through the gothic palace of Westminster would be worse than an airport. That was putting it mildly.

Brendan Purcell, British Rowing’s new international manager and director of performance, speaking to the All Party Parliamentary Rowing Group in the Houses of Parliament. Picture: @PhelpsAnnamarie.

Eventually, I slipped into a seat and recognised a few of the 20 or so peers, MPs and other ranks listening to a presentation by British Rowing. Andy Parkinson, the Chief Executive, was enthusing over a chart that showed an Olympic string of golden pearls. Then he introduced Brendan Purcell, Sir David Tanner’s replacement as international manager and director of performance. Brendan had been in post for less than a week. He confessed that he had barely yet found the location of his office, and that rowing had only recently come to his notice, relatively speaking, as his performance directorship since 2013 has been at British Triathlon, and his sporting passion had been canoeing in his Australian youth (a situation reminiscent of Brexit in the Cabinet, me thinks). Andy assured the company that Brendan brought impressive credentials to the job.

The message from the pair of them was quite clear, if understated. To continue Britain’s record of Olympic success depends on shed-loads of money from the Lottery or public funds. Rowing is never going to attract mega sponsors. Please keep it in your mind while the Treasury does battle with health, education and defence budgets in the corridors and lobbies of Westminster.

A meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Rowing Group in October 2016, chaired by Lord Thomas of Gresford (centre).

Lord Thomas of Gresford was in the chair, and after some Q&A, he wrapped up the meeting by inviting attendees for a drink on the terrace. I was looking forward to making the acquaintance of my new-found chums while taking in the view of St Thomas’s Hospital across the Thames where, as Tim Koch reported in HTBS, a plaque was unveiled recently to mark Leander’s home at Searles boatyard 200 years ago. But it was not to be. By the time we latecomers had signed the register, the good Lib Dem lord had left through a door at the other end of the room and vanished into the gothic maze. A small gaggle of us asked a policeman nicely for directions, but security forbad. A pleasure for another day.

A picture from the official signing as Sir Steve is appointed high-performance director for the Chinese national rowing team. Picture: @SteveRedgrave5.

A few days later, I was amazed to learn that Sir Steve Redgrave, who according to the Telegraph is Teresa May’s advisor on living with diabetes, has been appointed high performance director of the China rowing federation, charged with modernising the coaching structure and delivering a couple of medals in Tokyo in 2020. This seems a taller order than Purcell has walked into. Not only are the Olympics only two years away, but as far as I know Steve has little or no coaching experience (although he more than any other has been on the receiving end of several great practitioners, period).

Good luck to him, I say, but the move raises another question. How, I wonder, does giving Beijing a good Tannering square with chairing the management committee of Henley Royal Regatta? Could this Henley be Steve’s swansong so soon after he succeeded Mike Sweeney?

Shortly after this news broke, I ran into a distinguished mover and shaker in the sport who said: ‘Call me old fashioned, but the chairman of the regatta can’t hold such a job while remaining chairman.’ Or words to that effect, which beg the question, What is the chairman for?

The Chairman in relaxed mode.

Back in the days of John Garton, chairman from 1966 to 1978, the main task was to try and increase revenue to keep the regatta on the road. Garton was also chairman of the Amateur Rowing Association from 1969 and thus occupied the pinnacle of rowing’s governing body and the sport’s principal regatta for ten years. He steered both organisations through hard and inflationary times, a climate which may have contributed to his fierce loyalty to Henley and his distrust of developments elsewhere. He viewed the opening of the national water sports centre at Nottingham, with its multi-lane regattas on the first full international course in Britain, as a threat to Henley.

During the 1970s, the Holme Pierrepont venue hosted the world championships and a very successful international regatta sponsored by Guinness, but Garton resisted the brilliant opportunity of creating a ‘British rowing fortnight’ by placing Nottingham International close to Henley in the calendar to attract foreign crews to compete at both regattas with a training camp in between (Henley Women’s Regatta was yet to come).

There lies the rub. The chairman’s job is to deliver entries worthy of the trophies on offer. The reverse side of this medal is that the Stewards must ensure that their events appeal to contestants. Henley’s not the leading edge; Henley must adapt to trends on the world stage as well as on the home front.

Delivering entries worthy of the trophies on offer – current Chairman, Sir Steve Redgrave (centre), and his predecessor, Mike Sweeney (right).

Garton’s successors have done just that. Under Peter Coni, who took the chair in 1978, Henley cozied up to FISA, the international ‘2000-metre multilane’ federation, and achieved international regatta status and some World Cup events even though it offered one-on-one match racing over a funny distance. What helped, too, was that FISA’s president Thomi Keller happened to be a Steward and a Henley umpire. And Peter Coni was elected treasurer of FISA.

Coni’s successor Mike Sweeney – in the 1960s a victim of GB selection bias and a leading light at Nottinghamshire International in the 1970s – was the FISA commissioner in charge of world championship regattas. He succeeded another Henley Steward, Christopher Davidge, in that role. And Steward Mike Williams succeeded Coni as FISA treasurer.

Both Coni and Sweeney presided over modernisation of Henley’s challenge cups and status rules, and both exploited their presence at FISA regattas by encouraging coaches to enter their crews, particularly for the open events that are sometimes short of takers. Seldom was there an international regatta where the HRR chairman was not present around the boating area, the dining room or the bar.

Under Steve’s chairmanship since 2015 the Stewards have increased women’s open events to equal men’s, and introduced live television coverage – a terrific advance with a terrific bill. Another drain on funds is the increase in required security, a notice about which has just arrived through members’ letterboxes. Some of this may be offset by the discreet sponsorships introduced recently, reflecting either where the Stewards are, or would like to be in social standing. Hackett gear, Aston Martins and watches to be hijacked for. Just as with British Rowing, HRR is about the money!

Sir Steve with the trophies for the three new women’s events introduced last year.

I don’t know how much unpaid time a chairman needs to devote to his regatta, but my guess is substantial, even if the most important part of his role is simply to be seen on towpaths around the world. But it must be substantial, judging by Sweeney’s heaving shoulders of relief when he handed the baton to Steve. So where does performance directing China fit in? Expect entries from China at HRR, yes. But I tend to agree with my Old Fashioned friend, there has to be a conflict of interests. There must have been an interesting discussion on at the HRR management committee. Is the chair to become vacant in a week or three?

Henley – is there a chair free? Picture: HRR.

And if so, who amongst the high talent available will sit in it? Is your money on Sir Matt, the next knight in the hierarchy? Or is it on the first Chairwoman, now that Annamarie Phelps is no longer running British Rowing?

Meanwhile, Steve will be faced by challenges in social graces in his latest role. Liu Aijie, the president of the Chinese federation who signed his new performance director’s contract, was the technical director of Chinese rowing when I visited the training base at Star Lakes in Zhao Qing nearly 30 years ago. Liu spent the evening in his tiny, sparse office poring over an English dictionary in candle light to translate FISA’s recently-published coaches’ manual into Mandarin. Early next morning he and his colleagues entertained me to breakfast in a busy and posh Communist Party restaurant, and set me a challenge: how should I consume a couple of perfect runny fried eggs with only chopsticks for weapons? Without spilling yoke down my shirtfront?

Over to you, Sir Steve, and best of everything.

Editor’s note: Chris Dodd and Hugh Matheson’s biography of Olympic coach Jurgen Grobler, More Power, is out now, available from all good bookshops and Amazon.

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