24 April 2019
By Robert Treharne Jones
Why are the GB Trials held behind closed doors at Caversham?, Robert Treharne Jones asks.
It is widely recognised that our finest rowers rarely get the chance to compete in front of a home crowd. When they do, the event is suitably hyped-up to recognise the occasion, with last year’s European Championships in Strathclyde being a case in point. Or what about the British Indoor Championships, where the fans are positively encouraged to get up close and personal with their sporting heroes?
But there’s another UK event where publicity is positively discouraged. While more than 150 elite rowers from across the UK battled it out to catch the selectors’ eye at Caversham at GB Trials last weekend, a handful of press were the only members of the public granted access to view the spectacle.
And while France and Germany’s trials were streamed live, no such facility was granted from the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake, where one highly-respected national correspondent was required to take down some mobile phone video which had been posted on Twitter during racing.
Having photographed trials, wherever they’ve been held, for some 12 years, I’ve heard most of the arguments to support the current policy, starting with the doctrine of a previous administration that absolute control was necessary to achieve absolute performance.
Until 2010 the event was staged in Hazewinkel, which not only provided neutral water, unfamiliar to any of the participants, but was supposed to be cheaper than holding the event at Dorney, despite the logistic problems of shipping boats and athletes to the middle of Belgium.
The cost issue was pushed away in 2011, and again the following year, when familiarity with racing conditions at Eton Dorney was deemed a priority for athletes facing the final hurdle towards an Olympic place for London 2012.
For those two years at least, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel. The larger footprint at the Eton Rowing Lake offered the possibility of opening the event to a much wider audience but, as the Dorney Roar faded away, so too did the idea of a public event, and 2019 marked the seventh GB Trials to be held behind closed doors at Caversham.
Costs are thereby kept to a minimum, at least for those athletes based there, but the argument for neutral water has long since disappeared, with GB team members having the (theoretical) edge over those club athletes from the Trent, the Thames, or the Tyne.
There’s another argument that the presence of friends and family might boost the performance of one athlete against another, whose towpath support was lacking. It would certainly make an interesting case study to analyse the results at a world championships based on the level of support which each crew enjoyed from the stands!
Another idea suggests that to provide too much information might reveal our hand to the opposition when we race them during the season. Leaving aside the issue that the vast majority of athletes will not be competing in singles or pairs, it would be surprising indeed if a race plan at trials gave away every race plan for the year ahead.
The strongest argument to support the status quo comes from those who believe that trials are strictly business, a private matter between the coaches and the athletes. But the topmost level of another sport – premier league football – reflects the balance that has to be struck between the value of the business itself, and the entertainment value which can be generated by the performance of the participants.
So here’s my idea, which I put to a senior member of our national governing body (unsuccessfully) some years ago. Take the event back to Dorney and let the coaches run the regatta on the water, with barriers to screen off the public areas on the park. Open the doors and charge an admission price to cover the costs, with the offer of course-side car parking, on-site catering, loos, and commentary.
Friends, families and the wider rowing public are thereby kept involved, informed and entertained, as they enjoy the rare privilege of seeing their heroes compete on home water.
We now have a much more media and marketing-savvy administration that we did 10 years ago. Is this not an idea worth pursuing?