23 December 2020
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd muses on British Rowing’s past, present and future.
Cath and Kath are in the news again. In 2004, they won Olympic silver medals in a pair on Lake Schinias, Athens. Cath Bishop recalls their partnership in her book subtitled “The Search for a Better Way to Succeed”. Dame Kath Grainger, in her capacity as chairman of UK Sport, has slashed about 10 per cent from British Rowing’s budget (£24,655,408 for the Tokyo Olympiad reduced to £22,212,008 for Paris).
Cath’s book, The Long Win (October 2020), resonates from her experience of Olympic regattas at Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. The Athens medal concluded her international career and tormented her thereafter. The colour silver meant failure to win gold. Even bronze has a positive message when it indicates that you are better than fourth. On the way to Athens, she rowed in six World Championships, and won a world title with Katherine in 2003 at the end of an injury- and accident-prone regatta. ‘The day that Katherine and I beat the rest of the world at the world championships in Milan, winning had been further from our minds than at any other championships. We went out focusing on the performance, not the result. We were free of expectations, focusing on how we rowed…’
Her silver medal had Cath worrying about the nature of winning and losing as she carved a career at the Foreign Office with postings in, among others, Bosnia and Iraq. Such hotspots required compromise as the key to negotiation. She has degrees in modern and medieval languages, international politics and German, and is now a consultant in leadership and team development while teaching education at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University.
The Long Win begins with 24 endorsements from Olympic champions, professors, business tycoons and educators, followed by a preface, a prologue and an introduction, all hammering home a crystal-clear message. Cath drives a coach and eight through the accepted mantra of ‘winners and losers’ in the conduct of affairs, whether in coaching, teamwork, leadership, diplomacy, business, industry, performance sport, consultancy, politics or education. She wants to ditch the winners/losers mind set in favour of negotiation by cooperation and compromise.
Sir George Cox, who was chairman of the rowing selectors for the Moscow Olympiad and has a wealth of experience in business and higher education, summarized the volume at a recent Leander book group zoom. She analyses the problem clearly in well-written chapters. But she doesn’t come up with much in the way of solutions – yet, said George. The Long Win is the start of a journey (I paraphrase).
I agree with George. If I was setting out into higher education or about to carve a career in any of the above fields, I would dive into every chapter and every footnote to seek a better way of ranking outcomes. And I would re-read my biographies of Jurgen Grobler and Thor Nilsen, which both deal with the coach-athlete relationship in performance-motivated sport but reveal differences in approach.
Speaking of Grobler, Dick Lester – stroke of Bob Janousek’s Olympic silver eight in 1976 – made an interesting observation at the book group. Rowing in Britain is now richly funded by the state to win at almost any cost. When Dick was stroking the 1976 boat, lavish state funding only occurred east of the Iron Curtain, particularly in East Germany, where a young Grobler was making his mark. We’ve come full circle, Dick said, and the attitude of mind accompanying such professionalism begs discussion.
Which brings us to Dame Katherine, winner of five Olympic medals in five Games, including gold in London 2012. She chairs UK Sport, the quango that funds performance sport. The announcement of funding for the four years to the Paris Games of 2024 contained a modest overall increase in funds (£352m for Paris against £345m for Tokyo) plus an increase in the number of sports eligible for a share from 32 to 43. The pot’s more thinly spread. Winners are popular activities aspiring to Olympic and Paralympic participation such as basketball, skateboarding and surfing. Losers are sports that newspaper men insisted on labelling ‘posh’, including rowing and athletics (both founding Olympic sports), swimming, sailing, canoeing and modern pentathlon – watersports of an island nation.
Judging by Kath’s quotes and those of her chief executive Sally Munday, Cath’s book has yet to reach UK Sport.
‘We’re really clear that what we are aiming to do is have teams at the Olympics and Paralympic Games that represent our society,’ Sally said. She also said that the 36 sports that qualified for the world class programme were expected to win medals ‘the right way’ – a shot across the bows for cycling and gymnastics, dogged by bullying issues.
Katherine said that the Paris Olympiad is ‘still going to be about winning. The British public have told us that they still want us to keep winning, but it will really focus on how we win on the global stage, and I want our sporting community to be known internationally for its people-first approach, and also known for upholding the highest standards of integrity.’
The story of how rowing is granted over £20m an Olympiad began in Atlanta in 1996 when Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent, virtually the only British rowers with any financial support, won Team GB’s only gold medal in the Games. Prime minister John Major launched the Lottery Sports Fund as a consequence, and rowing was ready to claim the largest helping for the run up to Sydney 2000.
Sports that delivered medals were winners in the Lottery, and performance director David Tanner built an impregnable squad system on the back of precious metal delivered by Jurgen Grobler and Paul Thomson that reached all corners of international rowing. Juniors, under-23s and senior squads had access to the best coaches, physios, shrinks, chefs, equipment, a purpose-built training centre and money to live as full-time athletes, presided over by the triumvirate of Sir David and his chief coaches Jurgen and Paul, the latter as effective a coach as the former.
Fast forward to 2020 and BR International has to jog along on £22m per Olympiad. Its model, East Germany, disappeared with the Berlin Wall in 1989, soon followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union and straightened circumstances in the former Soviet satellites.
It was inevitable that the Caversham triumvirate, with 70 years of leadership between them, would fall. I once asked Sir David whether Jurgen worked for him or he worked for Jurgen, and he replied that any appointment he made should be better at the job than David himself. David ducked out after the 2016 Rio Games, and when Paul followed some months later, Jurgen was given responsibility for all the squads for the remainder of the Tokyo Olympiad, after which he had announced his intention of retiring.
Then Jurgen suddenly jumped overboard when the pandemic struck at the Tokyo Games, at worst wrecking them, at best delaying them. Whether Jurgen jumped or was pushed, his move left the squad bereft, according to the journalist Tom Ransley, an Olympic champion in GB’s Rio eight who interviewed several rowers in the magazine Row-360 No 33.
Reactions were mixed. ‘We’ve lost our men’s chief coach, our women’s chief coach, our chief psychologist, our chief physiologist, our chief physiotherapist, our chief nutritionist and our selector,’ said Jacob Dawson. Karen Bennett said that Jurgen gave the women’s squad ‘a sense of belief and he really backed us. Jurgen definitely brought the meaning of team to our squad,’ and she quoted his mantra ‘all for one and one for all’. But a feeling of being a secondary consideration simmers among the men’s heavyweight scullers, and has done for several Olympiads. The sculler Vicky Thornley is angry and gutted. Why is he leaving? What’s going on?’ she asks. Moe Sbihi, veteran of the men’s squad, feels bereft.
Ransley reported that those working for Jurgen tended to be on a short leash. It didn’t help that athletes found out about Jurgen’s departure via zoom rather than from the lips of the legendary coach. Many suspect a power struggle over style of leadership between Jurgen and Brendan Purcell, Tanner’s successor as performance director. The suspicion was that British Rowing had written Tokyo off while aiming all effort at Paris 2024 and LA 2028.
The magazine notes the irony in the approach road to Caversham Lakes training centre being named ‘Grobler’s Way’. Not any more. ‘This certainly marks a changing of the guard,’ Ransley concludes.
The end of Jurgen’s half century of gold standard coaching is the frontier of the winners and losers game. High performance sport has the built-in dilemma of one for all and all for one – how to be loyal and supportive of your mates while competing against them for seats in the boat and the colour of the gongs. Thinking about it as a reporter, I have been ill at ease on occasions where I have asked dumb questions in order to winkle out a ‘story’. Contrast interviewing Cath and Kath between outings over a cup of tea in Marlow in preparation for the Athens Olympics in 2004 with an excruciating compulsory press conference in Beijing four years later, where Kath and her quad had been billed as favourites for gold only to be pipped by a Chinese bow ball. The former filled a notebook with nuggets, while the latter was embarrassing for crew and press pack, the former in tears while the latter bowled goolies like ‘when did you know that the Chinese (who were also present at the conference) were ahead?’
It will be interesting to see where the question set by Cath Bishop leads. I see from Moe Sbihi’s column in The Telegraph that moves are already being made to consult athletes over the sacred business of selection – at which Jurgen was a master. And Moe notes that ‘in all aspects of our work, everyone is moving on to Project Paris’.
I’ve no idea where this will lead. The only certainty is that Moe will retire after Tokyo. So, I leave you with something completely irrelevant to what has gone before – an example of how to get a story out of a coach. Some years ago, my colleague David Faiers of the Irish Independent and I were watching the preliminary heats at the world championships where the only Irish entry finished badly – last in the last race of the day. Jesus, said Faiers, did you see that? How am I going to justify a week’s expenses in Swiss francs with a performance like a one-legged tap dancer with a parrot on his shoulder?
He set off for the dock and waited in the shadows for the boat to come in. Then, shorthand pad and pencil poised for action, he marched up to the coach, looked him in the eye and shouted: ‘Your crew were bollocks!’ Fifteen minutes later he was dictating quotes down the line to Dublin. Slamming the phone down when he finished, he turned to me and said: ‘That’s the denials for the evening paper. Now the excuses for the morning,’ and he set to with his pencil (and spun the story for the week).
The Long Win by Cath Bishop is published by Practical Inspiration.
Postscript. On 22 December, British Rowing announced ‘a new look senior coaching team’ to lead the GB Rowing Team through to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, something that it has been working on since the departure of Jürgen Grobler as chief coach for both the men’s and the women’s squads. The new structure will see four lead coaches take charge of the separate Olympic squads through to Tokyo. The four are Steve Trapmore, men’s sweep; Paul Stannard, men’s sculling; James Harris, women’s sweep; Paul Reedy, women’s sculling. They will also be core members of new ‘selection groups’ responsible for crew selection. There is no change on the Paralympic side, with Tom Dyson continuing to lead the programme. Full details are on the British Rowing website.