Henley Rules, OK?*

An example of good sportsmanship (sportswomanship?) in the best Henley tradition. Winners and losers who, in the words of Kipling ‘…meet with Triumph and Disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same…’

6 December 2018

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch’s HTBS take on the Stewards’ recent ‘annual general meeting’.

Yesterday, HTBS reported briefly on some decisions taken at the December meeting of ‘The Stewards’, the body that runs Henley Royal Regatta, ‘New Stewards and a New Rule for HRR’.

There are presently 67 Stewards, and they are a self-electing body who are mostly accomplished rowers but who also include some long-serving and successful administrators of the sport. The 7,000 Members of the Stewards’ Enclosure have no voting rights or control over how the regatta is run. In a similar vein, the self-financing regatta does not have ‘sponsors’ influencing events (though it does have ‘partners’, commercial people who give the regatta money with apparent deference). The accumulated knowledge and experience of the Stewards produces a regatta that (mostly) satisfies both the competitors and the social attendees. Henley now thrives because it responds to a changing world. It is true that reform can come slowly, but rushed and populist change can produce poor long-term results. Today, most people cannot imagine that in the 1960s and 1970s when the regatta did not move with the times, it almost died. Previously, even when there was some reform, it was done begrudgingly or defensively. When Henley finally allowed women to cox in 1975, the then chairman stated ‘I would emphasise that this is in no way the thin end of the wedge. It is not a triumph for women’s lib – or any nonsense of that sort’.

Mimi Sherman, ‘the pigtailed Californian’ as the British press dubbed her. Her attempts to cox at the 1974 Regatta were initially opposed as ‘against the tradition of Henley’.

The election of three new Stewards, two women and a man, brings the total number to 67. Of these, 11 are women (the first woman to be elected as a Steward, Dame Di Ellis, died in May 2017). Thus, while 16% is a rather small proportion, most Stewards only end their tenure on going to the great enclosure in the sky, so there is much historical legacy here. If the 12 women (including Di) are taken as a proportion of all the 38 Stewards elected since the first woman was given the honour in 1997, the figure is nearly a third, 32%. In the last three years, 10 Stewards have been elected, of which six are female, 60%.

Sarah Winckless, the fifth woman to become a Henley Steward and the first to umpire at the regatta.

The rule changes ‘introduced to ensure the highest level of sportsmanship at next year’s Regatta’ are, to my reading, a little vague:

35 (c) All coaches, competitors and clubs are reminded of the possible sanctions imposed by the Qualification and General Rules in respect of unsporting conduct.

42 (a) The Committee shall have the power in response to acts of unsporting conduct to impose the penalties in Rule 38, and in addition the exclusion of competitors, crews or a club from an event or from all events at the Regatta.

42 (b) Unsporting conduct means behaviour deemed by the Committee and/or race officials to be unsporting and/or likely to cause offence which is displayed before, during or after a race by competitors, crews, coaches, club members or supporters.

I suppose that vagueness is not so much of a problem when we remember Henley’s ‘unwritten Rule Zero’, previously interpreted by Rachel Quarrell as ‘the Stewards make the rules and can do what they like’.

Diederik Simon (left) and Boris Ravkov (right) discuss rules and sportsmanship at Henley 2016.

Ultimately however, anything that helps to keep Henley Royal Regatta one of the most civilised international sporting events is to be supported and applauded. We would not want a repeat of the 1987 incident when a pair that had broken the course record in a heat of the Goblets rowed back down the reach to receive the crowd’s applause. The then chairman, Peter Coni, called this ‘grandstanding‘ and ‘part of the John McEnroe syndrome’ and he gave them a false start penalty. The miscreants were AJ Holmes and SG Redgrave.

The chairman (right) demonstrates how mobile phones should not be used in the Stewards’ Enclosure.

There is another example, more famous at the time, of someone who once broke the Stewards’ (then) unwritten code of conduct, but who was eventually welcomed into their exclusive circle.

In his Henley Royal Regatta (1981), Chris Dodd gives a precise and delicate summary of the event:

A young Thames Tradesmen four lost the Wyfolds in 1970 when they were disqualified for bad steering in the dying moments of the final. It was a controversial decision and in gratitude, the stroke attributed a part of the anatomy to the umpire which is very doubtful he possessed.

The audible expletive was not acceptable to the Stewards’ Enclosure, not least because the umpire that it was directed at was the legendary Ran Laurie.

The Tradesmen’s stroke man told the story from his viewpoint in a 2017 interview with the Henley Standard newspaper:

‘We were winning the race when there was a collision right outside the Stewards’ Enclosure. I heard the other crew being warned and then we were disqualified. They put their blades on our backs and pushed past us to the finish. We said lots of things we probably shouldn’t have said or done. There were various gestures made towards the Stewards’ Enclosure and it all carried on when we got to the boat tent’.

The ‘diplomatic incident’, as the 69-year-old now calls it, was reported across the world. He says: ‘The people in the rowing world and the oarsmen we cared about, they were right on our side. Others were determined we would never row for the country.’

In fact, Fred Smallbone was rowing for GB just two years later, coming fourth in the coxless fours at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and second in the eights at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He also won the Britannia and the Stewards at Henley. Today, he has been a Henley Steward for 30 years.

Fred Smallbone (centre left) with three-times Olympic Gold Medalist, Pete Reed (centre right) and Doggetts winners, Henley 2017. Reed has called Fred his ‘coach, friend and mentor’. Picture: @PeteReed.

Fred concluded his Henley Standard interview by saying:

The regatta originally had a reputation for being slightly detached from the competitors but under the chairmanship of Mike Sweeney and now Steve Redgrave there’s been a harmonising between the stewards and competitors. The competitors that I know like to see us as a strong overarching body but they also know that we’re approachable and we’re always willing to listen to what they tell us. I haven’t missed a day since I’ve been a Steward and I feel Henley Royal is the best regatta in the world.

A clear case of forgiveness on both sides.

*The etymology is here.

One comment

  1. Well written, Tim. Glad to read I am not the only one to query who decides what is deemed unsportsmanlike behaviour. Although I am sure it will all be done in the ‘best possible taste’ you can bet your bottom dollar someone will be upset and/or offended.

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