Fair Games

London 2012 Olympic Regatta: The ‘Albano’ system of parallel lines of buoys guides the finalists in the men’s coxless fours home.  The red buoys mark the last 100 metres.

30 June 2020

By Chris Dodd

Sixty years have passed since Lake Albano gave its name to a system of marking lanes at the Rome Olympics. Chris Dodd reflects on still waters.

When Thomi Keller was elected president of World Rowing (aka FISA) in 1958, he heeded the voice of athletes and introduced reforms to make the water park fairer. The first stage was the introduction of marker buoys to define the lanes at the 1960 Olympics, much to the relief, I imagine, of coxes and steerspersons of coxless boats with a toe on a footplate and a rear view.

Thomi Keller, president of Féderation Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron (FISA, also known as World Rowing), the governing body of international rowing, from 1958 until his death in 1989. Keller always aimed to give priority to the interests of the rowers.

Henceforth the international federation has been tasked with creating fair conditions and equal opportunities in an outdoor sport – almost a contradiction in terms. The factors of fairness are many, starting with the way the qualification progression and the allocation of lanes operates. The physical challenge is to create eight straight lanes on still water. Since 1960, the Albano system of parallel lines of buoys anchored to underwater cables has been de rigueur. But buoys come with problems. The apparatus must be quick to install, quick to uninstall, and easy to fix if the cables drag, as they did during the Rio Olympics, causing a long delay.

A long list of factors affects fairness on rowing courses, 2000 metres or otherwise, both natural and human. Under the first heading are currents, streams, tides, optimum depth and varying depth, ability of banks – pebbles, dock walls, reeds – to absorb waves, cross wind, head wind, tail wind, wind shadow from trees and buildings, gusting wind, varying wind, high and low air and water temperature, dredged channels and television schedules. If the lake has multiple uses, other factors might apply.

The Eton Dorney International Rowing Course built in 2006.

Obstacles to fairness under the human heading include umpire launches, safety launches and media launches, bad steering, deliberate interference, washing down, and perhaps sledging. Or, in the Albano era, tangling your blade with a buoy as Peter Haining did during his Worlds final in Roudnice, Prague. He stopped 200 metres from the line while leading, disentangled, performed a magnificent sprint re-start and won the race. That night his mate George Parsonage swam out and cut the offending buoy away. It found its way to a wall in Glasgow.

The quest for fairness and the difficulty of finding suitable water for top class regattas led to FISA’s promotion of state-of-the-art man-made lakes – at enormous expense. Such facilities also run into the inheritance problem encountered by Olympic host cities – what to do with the stadium after the event? Will it become the elephant in the room?

A map from the Official Report of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics showing the site of the rowing, swimming and shooting. The rowing was in a bay, the Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, marked here in red. There was a ‘dog leg’ at the finish (on the left here).

Among the earliest, if not the first, purpose-built course is the Bosbaan in Amsterdam, dug out by the unemployed during the depression in the 1930s. The first man-made Olympic course was Xochimilco in Mexico City in 1968. Every Olympic course before then had different and/or dodgy conditions. Rowing was cancelled in 1896 because of a storm in the Bay of Piraeus. Regattas in 1900 and 1924 were held on the Seine, 1908 and 1948 were on the two or three-lane Henley course against the current, 1912 was on a Swedish bay, 1920 a Belgian canal, 1928 a Dutch river/canal, 1932 a lagoon at Long Beach with an outlet to the ocean; 1936 on the river at Grünau, Berlin; 1952 a Finnish lake, 1956 Lake Wendouree near Melbourne, 1960 on Lake Albano, and 1964 on a basin in Tokyo.

A contemporary view of the ‘Bosbaan’ in Amsterdam, built in 1936 as an employment project, improved in 1954 and 2001.
An aerial view of the 1936 Olympic rowing course at Grünau, Berlin, on the ‘Langer See’ (‘Long Lake’).
A modern view of Lake Albano, the volcanic crater that was the venue for the 1960 Olympic Regatta.
The Xochimilco Regatta Course, purpose-built for the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Examples of unfairness on 2000-metre courses and others are legion, man-made or natural. I doubt that there is a rowing course without a ‘fairness’ problem, except possibly the God-sent Rotsee in Lucerne. Howling crosswinds and a TV contract played havoc with the World Championship Regatta on Lake Bagsvaerd in 1987, leading to the establishment of the Fairness Commission whose members rush up and down armed with a ‘grassometer’, and enjoy powers to change the allotment and/or seeding of lanes, and substitute time trials for heats.

The ‘God-sent’ Rotsee (‘Red Lake’) on the northern edge of Lucerne, Switzerland, is 2,400 metres long with virtually no current and is protected from winds by nearby hills making it an ideal rowing venue. Picture: Almar Bossard.

The commission creates contingency plans to deal with prevailing conditions. Examples are Nottingham (Worlds 1975 and 1986) where head or tail winds occur, Eton Dorney (Olympics 2012) and Penrhyn Lakes (Olympics 2000) where crosswinds are no strangers. The water at the old Bosbaan course rolled like a sausage once racing began, a factor denied by FISA at the Worlds in 1977 but proven by journalists testing it with floating oranges. The Worlds at Karapiro in 2010 came in for much dissatisfaction caused by wind shadow.

No Albano System on the Henley course.

Traditional river courses entertain a fistful of factors affecting fairness. The two-lane 1-mile 550-yard track at Henley is boomed on the outside for its entire length, but there are no markers separating the lanes, allowing crews to move into each other’s station by accident or on purpose. If it rains a lot during the regatta, land water sweeps round the outside of the bend at the finish, slowing the Bucks station. The Stewards have been in denial about this for 150 years, but its effect is seen plainly from the press box.

The Putney to Mortlake ‘Championship Course’ has changed little since this imagined view of 1875.

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race runs four and a quarter miles on the incoming tide along a huge S-bend, and has every quirk imaginable. The stations meet at the centre of the tide, but every tide is different. The centre is, therefore, a matter of interpretation by umpire and coxes. If there is a tail wind on one part of the course, it will be a headwind somewhere else. Calm water at the start can turn rough at the finish, and vice-versa.

Buoys supplied by rowing-system.com

The introduction of buoys 60 years ago was a milestone in regularising racing and easing the task of coxes, steerspersons and umpires. But fairness in the wild outdoors remains elusive and controversial, at least until someone proposes to erect a roof over the track. Richard Burnell, an Olympic champion in 1948 on the Henley course and eminent rowing scribe, used to remind me that rowing was invented to demonstrate that life is unfair. Perhaps the examples quoted above will inspire HTBS readers to send in their tales of woe from traversing memory lanes.

Meanwhile, happy birthday to the buoys of Albano.

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