Stuck in the Toffs’ Pigeon Hole

At the London 2012 Olympic Regatta, the FISA (now World Rowing) flag flies alongside that of the Olympic movement with its famous five rings.

26 February 2021

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd rants…

Jonathan Marks, who expresses his sport agency as ‘the proven boutique experts into sports media’, asserted in The Daily Telegraph recently that too many Olympic sports are no longer relevant to a global audience. He suggested that the Games need a reboot, and since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is never going to fall on its own sword, ‘power brokers from across sport, sponsors and broadcasters, are required to look at what the format should be and divert funding into the hands of the right creative minds’.

The ‘agent to Britain’s greatest Olympians’ threw doubt on his own sport, track and field, to justify nine days as the centrepiece of the Games when the sport itself is ‘steadily losing the clout it once had’ in the wider world.

The debate about which sports should be included in the summer games has been raging at least since the Irish oarsman, Lord Killanin, was president of the IOC. It is an argument that pitches old sports against new and involves head counts and quotas, events and categories, costs and host cities, broadcasters and sponsors. It has come to a head again in the pandemic that did for Tokyo 2020, threatens Tokyo 2021 and possibly the Olympics themselves. In rowing terms, it has fuelled World Rowing’s development programme during the presidencies of Thomi Keller, Denis Oswald and Jean-Christophe Rolland. A founding sport in the modern Olympics founded by the French oarsman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, rowing has been looking over its shoulder around 50 years while counting member federations and heads in boats.

From top to bottom, the three traditions of rowing in Britain: for trade – a 17th-century waterman carrying paying passengers; for wager and prize money – working-class professionals compete on the Tyne in 1866; for sport – gentlemen amateurs in the 1891 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race.

I have no argument with Jonathan Marks’s questions. But what sticks in my craw as a historian of rowing is his casual confinement of rowing to irrelevancy when he writes, ‘the likes of rowing, modern pentathlon and hockey are public-school sports that could be justified for the most part of the twentieth century, but is that still the case?’

It is plain that rowing, the mother of modern sports, is stuck for aye in the minds of the ignorati with a 19-century image of preppies, hooray Henleys and toffs, however it may retune its athletic and social profile to modern times.

I know that I am about to preach to the converted on heartheboatsing – these sentiments should be on seeBoltgo.ath – but the likes of Jonathan Marks serve to remind us how important it is to expose rowing’s story in the public domain whenever opportunity arises. Here are some reminders that toiling at the oar was a means of livelihood for centuries before it became a recreation and a team sport:

For centuries, human life on rivers and lakes depended on oar-powered boats, boat builders to build them and professional watermen to row them;

Vikings rowed rivers into Europe and oceans to America;

Greeks, Romans and Venetians dominated Mediterranean trade by rowing quinquiremes of Nineveh and other multi-oared ships;

Gondolas served as Venice’s black cabs, just as wherries were the original black cabs of London;

Oar-powered pilot gigs guided shipping from ocean to berth;

Oars were the engines of life saving at sea before the steam age;

Men at oars stalked whales, and sardines were netted by Basque traineras;

Building rowing boats was once an enormous industry;

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1829), Wingfield Sculls (1830) and Henley Royal Regatta (1839) shaped amateur sport in Britain;

Not a toff in sight. The boatbuilder Ted Phelps is cheered by his Cockney supporters after winning the World Professional Sculling Championship in 1929. Until the Second World War, rowing in Britain was thought of as a sport for all.

In Victorian times every riverside town in Britain worth its salt had a rowing club and every seaside town and industrial city had a boating lake. Every spring and summer season had a regatta;

The Harvard-Yale Boat Race (1852) and the Oxford-Harvard boat race on the Thames in 1869 begat inter-collegiate sport in America;

British rowers were involved in setting rules for amateur games (rowers row, the rest play games), including boxing, athletics, cross-country running and the Football Association;

Rowing has provided many grinders for America’s Cup yachts, a current example being Matt Gotrel of GB’s 2016 Olympic champion eight;

Thomas Doggett’s apprentices’ race from London Bridge to Chelsea is the oldest continuous rowing fixture, the winner rewarded by a coat and badge to show his/her status as a waterman;

Professional oarsmen taught amateurs how to do it;

Community rowing centres are opening rowing to people who have never before had the chance.

Fulham Reach BC, a community rowing club established in 2014 to bring rowing to all.

So, Mr Marks, it is true that rowing as a recreation and sport began in private schools, universities and among the professional and upper classes that could afford the equipment and the time to indulge in it. But the key element in this development was, and still is, that professional rowers and boat builders showed them how to do it by imparting knowledge accumulated over centuries during which nobody had heard of amateurism and no team sports existed except for local kick-abouts with a bladder or great cheese races.

Which brings us back to the Olympics (reminder: founded by an oarsman). While World Rowing has rationalised its programme and enacted gender equality during the last 50 years, its development programme has doubled the number of affiliated countries and taken rowing to communities on five continents, communities that never before had a chance to row a boat for fun. Most of them are not toffs, hooray Henleys or preppies.

And even if those sections of society can still be found in rowing, not all preppies and toffs are what their name implies.

There, I feel much better for that.


  1. Hello Chris D,
    I bet you do, feel much better etc, and so indeed do I.
    Thanks for your time, effort & research, not to mention your accumulated knowledge.
    We are all the better for it.
    But what, I wonder, ails poor Jonathan ?
    Does one detect some underlying mental disturbance or is he not willing to think and consider before committing his rubbish to print ?

  2. Chris is as eloquent and erudite as ever, however his wisdom will fall on deaf ears with the likes of Mr Marks, and many on the IOC. The Olympics is sadly no longer about sport, and more about television ratings and money. They continue to go down a craven path of introducing recreations, like break dancing, and dressing them up as sport, solely to try to grab more television audience.

    The interesting thing is that many of the new “sports” are entirely subjective, and far removed from the “citius, altius, fortius” motto of the original modern Olympics.

    Sadly, this devalues all of the other sports.

    It is not the sports that are becoming irrelevant, but the games themselves.

    Let’s see the Olympics for what they are: a multi-million dollar entertainment industry, built on borrowed glory, and exposed for their decadent and venality.

    Our elite athletes deserve better.

  3. Thank you, William O’Chee. I agree with you entirely, was tempted to raise the subject, but as a very marginal voice here I did not. Your comment shouldn’t stand alone, however, maybe appearing to some as just one man’s opinion.
    Larry Fogelberg

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