Rowing: Time To Do The Right Thing

The most famous anti-racist gesture in sport: 200-metre runners Tommie Smith (centre), John Carlos (right) and Peter Norman (left), at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. Hated by establishment figures at the time, today they are lauded for their action. Greg Denieffe has written about how the Ivy Leaguers of the Harvard Olympic Eight supported the 1968 protest, something that few other white athletes then did. Ironically, American footballers who ‘took the knee’ beginning in 2016 initially received much the same reception from certain ‘patriots’ as first met the 1968 Olympic trio.

12 June 2020

By Tim Koch

The death of George Floyd has produced the greatest civil unrest in decades and a debate far beyond America and its police. Rowing has not been exempted from this diverse and international self-examination.

Rowing is a ‘white sport’. Internationally, we only have to look at the medal table for the last Olympic Regatta to see that it is dominated by Caucasians from Europe, North America and Australasia. At a local level that I am familiar with, London, people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds make up 55% of the capital’s population (2011 UK census) but must be a tiny percentage of the London rowing community. Nationally, British Rowing says that fewer than 5% of its members are BAME. Team GB and the U.S. National Team are overwhelmingly white.

No one is suggesting that the rowing world is full of overt racists; in my experience the sport contains a disproportionately high number of thoughtful and fair-minded people. However, there is a view that racism comes not only from ‘doing’ but also from ‘not doing’, an uncomfortable thought for most of us well-meaning but passive white liberals.

I do not have any answers and, even if I thought that I did, I probably would not put them here. The only thing that I can say with certainty is that fine words, good intentions, Facebook ‘likes’, supportive tweets, ‘right-on’ wristbands and woolly writing on rowing history websites have not produced the required changes and it seems to be time to do something different. Thus, no comments will be accepted for the ‘leave a reply’ section of this post, it is not my intention to start an online debate here.

At the 2012 London Olympics, the remarkable win by the South African Lightweight Four meant that Sizwe Lawrence Ndlovu became the first male black African rower to achieve Olympic gold.

Two governing bodies, British Rowing and USRowing have both recently published statements on racism: BR’s is here and the American response is here. Both are ‘against sin’, but I was more impressed by an open letter from USRowing’s Interim CEO, Susan Smith. It had the honest conclusion:

So, to answer all of those asking what is USRowing going to DO? I don’t know. We don’t have all the answers, but there are others that may, and our conversations begin today.

Steve O’Connor coaching at Fulham Reach Boat Club, a charity with the aim of ‘unlocking the potential of young people through rowing’ and which puts 1,000 state school children a year on the water, 64% of which are BAME and 62% of which are female. Picture: British Rowing.

In 2018, Steve O’Connor, CEO of the charity Fulham Reach Boat Club, writing on ‘Why diversity in rowing is a good thing’ noted:

It’s one thing to say that you will work with whoever comes through the door, it’s another thing to actively go out and find them.

O’Connor concluded that:

…the most important reason to actively work to increase the diversity within our sport is a simple one…. because it’s the right thing to do.

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