25 November 2020
By Chris Dodd
On 11 December, the IOC will decide whether to include coastal rowing in the Paris Games in 2024. Chris Dodd sculls around World Rowing’s affair with the Olympics.
If the International Olympic Committee (IOC) accepts World Rowing’s proposal to include coastal rowing events in the Paris Games of 2024, the cause of rowing for lightweights will turn full circle.
After a fraught debate at rowing’s extraordinary congress in Budapest in 1993, inclusion of events for lightweights in the Olympic Games was proposed by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron (FISA) and accepted by the IOC.
On 18 October this year, the FISA congress voted by 125 to 11, or 91%, to apply for inclusion of coastal events in the Paris programme. The congress also voted to drop its original name of 130 years in favour of World Rowing.
The engine driving these moves is World Rowing’s concern to preserve the sport’s place in the Olympic summer programme. Rowing was included at the first modern Games in 1896 in Athens, although the regatta was cancelled because of high seas in the bay of Piraeus. But an Olympic regatta has taken place in every Games since. Olympic rowing was almost exclusively a preserve of European and English-speaking countries until after WWII – and the preserve of men until events for women were introduced in 1976.
From the 1980s, there was growing awareness in FISA – if not the oldest, then one of the earliest international sports federations – that rowing’s social profile was in danger of slipping below the Olympic horizon. While the IOC, under the presidency of Juan Antonio Samaranch, set its sights on commercialism, sponsorship, television exposure, reducing the total number of athletes participating, and the inclusion of modern mass-participation sports, rowing was encased in a relatively small federation wrapped up in the traditional values of Europe, Australasia and North America. But in the 1980s and 1990s, FISA president Thomi Keller and his successor Denis Oswald began to contemplate the world beyond the governing body’s navel.
The new watchword was ‘universality’. In order to maintain a presence in the summer Olympics, universality meant finding more federations, producing more active competitors in existing federations, and greatly enlarging the base of the rowing pyramid.
The solution that came to the fore in 1993 was lightweight rowing. Adding lightweight events to the Olympics would open the Games to Asia, Central and South America and the Far East, all continents where people are generally lighter in weight and smaller in size. To make room for lightweights in the 14-event programme, open events like the men’s coxed pair lost out. The change had the desired effect, up to a point, it increased participation, but mainly by tall thin Europeans, Aussies and Americans. It was a step towards satisfying the IOC’s commitment to gender equality.
A quarter of a century later, the old lightweight argument is now attached to coastal rowing. It will open the Olympics to countries that row on oceans, lagoons, tides and seas, many of which do not have rivers or lakes. The proposed Olympic events are men’s and women’s coastal singles and mixed doubles, to be staged at a coastal venue yet to be decided. If coastal rowing is accepted, the number of 2000-metre flat water events will be reduced to 12, being three sculling and three sweep events for women and men, genderly-equal.
World Rowing describes coastal as the adventure side of the sport. It involves rowing along coasts and out to sea. It is a fast-growing community because flat water is not required. It is especially popular in Italy, France and Britain, but coastal rowing can be found in all corners of the world, including the Maldives and many parts of Africa.
Growth in World Rowing membership and in coastal rowing has not occurred overnight. The key to both lies in FISA’s development programme which began almost by accident under the influence of the Norwegian coach Thor Nilsen. Nilsen has been the eminence grise behind coaching education for 50 years, the coach of coaches (his remarkable story is told in Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach, Independent Publishing Network, 2019).
In the 1970s, Nilsen welcomed all comers to his perpetual coaching education programme when he was director of the Spanish rowing centre at Banyoles, and continued to do so when he moved to the Italian centre at Piediluco in the 1980s, with the support of the respective Spanish and Italian federations under FISA’s umbrella.
Breakthrough came in the mid-1990s when Olympic Solidarity granted funds to support rowing in non-rowing countries. Nilsen summoned 20 of the world’s top coaches to Ratzeburg academy in 1986 and gave them three days to write Be A Coach, a FISA manual in several languages. Development coaches were soon at work in South America and Asia.
Thus was rowing adapted to local conditions. Containers equipped with racks, boats, oars and toolboxes were shipped to places that had none. FISA arranged boat building and repair workshops, training camps, the loan of coaches, acquisition of boats by donation and mentoring by established federations (e.g. Britain for English-speaking Africa, France for French-speaking Africa). It learned to introduce grass root activity adapted to local conditions that also served to increase participation at the top, Olympic, end of the pyramid. There have, of course, been failures and flops, but these are far outnumbered by the success of many schemes.
Coastal rowing is one such discipline, reaching many places that 2000-metre flat-water rowing does not. Movement of the stroke is similar to flat-water rowing, but everything else is different, according to the Olympic oarsman Lassi Karonen who has experienced both. Coastal rowing is easier to learn, due partly to the stability and robustness of the boats. The standard boats are singles (or solo), doubles and coxed quadruple sculls.
Covid may have halted regattas temporarily, but Sheila Stephens, director of World Rowing’s development programme, and her team have been using lockdown to revise the education materials for all the disciplines that nowadays involve First Aid, CPR, safeguarding and water safety, anti-doping, communication and several other ingredients.
World Rowing has invested much in attempting to make coastal rowing an Olympic sport, and there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of objection from the tall and thin tribes as they are poised to be snuffed out of the Olympic programme.
It is not, however, a foregone conclusion. As Matt Smith, executive director of the federation, says: ‘There are many uncertainties in this world at this time, so nothing is straight forward anymore. We have to wait and see.’