20 August 2021
By Hugh Matheson
Hugh Matheson rowed in the Olympic Games of 1972, 1976 and 1980, winning silver in the eight in Montreal. Later, he successfully coached Nottingham County Rowing Association. In 1986, he became the rowing correspondent of the Independent newspaper and ten years later became a rowing commentator on British Eurosport and for FISA (now called World Rowing). In 2018, in collaboration with Chris Dodd, he published More Power, the first biography of Jurgen Grobler. The performance of British rowers at the Tokyo Olympics has been much debated and here Hugh gives HTBS his well-informed view of British international rowing pre and post Grobler.
So, where was he? As the 2020 British Rowing team slid sideways across the lanes and down the medal table from first to fourteenth ranked overall in the roaring tail winds of the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo, the cry arose, “Would this have happened if Jurgen Grobler was still in charge?”
Grobler started his Olympic journey nearly fifty years ago, coaching the East German sculler Wolfgang Guldenpfennig to a bronze medal in the Munich Olympics. From then on, his crews were champions at every Olympics he was allowed to attend, up to Rio in 2016. That golden thread was broken decisively in the postponed games of 2021.
And, of course, he was not “there” in Tokyo but was, instead, mulling over his offer from the French Rowing Federation to apply his methods to their host nation role for the Paris 2024 Olympiad. Jurgen left his posts as chief coach Great Britain a year ago at the age of seventy-four and whatever may be claimed at the rightness and justice of this decision, it is irreversible. He, the great ‘internal attributer’, will say nothing about his defenestration, nor will he comment on the number of people appointed, since he left, to do the work he took on alone.
The decision came from Andy Parkinson, the British Rowing Chief executive, and Brendan Purcell, the Director of Rowing. Both are career sports administrators who have no previous knowledge of rowing. Confronted through the first COVID summer by the horrible dilemma of whether to stick with the coaching structure contracted to deliver five medals in Tokyo or twist to the regime change inevitably required for Paris 2024 and beyond to Los Angeles 2028 they were, to use a rowing metaphor, rudderless. They had no deep knowledge of how rowing had, over twenty-five years of Sports Lottery funding, reached its pinnacle.
They opted to twist, perhaps because they felt that the majority of the young squad would see it as in their interest to go sooner into the system that will take them through to Paris. Purcell has denied that the athletes’ opinions were influential in his decision to dispense with Grobler’s services before his contract was up, which brings the burden squarely onto his own shoulders. Grobler’s system developed and refined in East Germany made him, in management speak, the “single point of failure”. If he collapsed, the system collapsed. When he left, whether now or later, British Rowing would be obliged to rethink all of its Olympic preparation.
All coaches in pursuit of Olympic gold do two things to secure the dream. First, they train their own athletes to be as good as they can be on finals day and, second, they learn as much as possible about the likely opposition on that day. A sport like rowing, with a race lasting around six minutes, where the athletes have to overcome the extra load of the water resistance against the hull, you need someone with a good deal of explosive strength and tremendous endurance. Both qualities take years of hard training to get up to Olympic standard. The forty or so rowing nations each have at most six athletes with the luck to be born with both the right levers and the right metabolic composition who have also been exposed to the right type of training.
A full Olympic team has 23 places for men and 23 for women athletes. Those countries which have financed aspirational squads reaching deep into the clubs and universities can bring many more bodies up to near podium standard, but the Steve Redgraves and Helen Glovers remain scarce as hen’s teeth.
Jurgen Grobler’s unparalleled haul of Olympic golds is the product of bringing the journeyman crew members very damned close to podium standard and of extracting the maximum possible from the truly talented few to lift several national crews up that last, toughest step.
The second essential is to work out which event is the most likely to yield the prize. Grobler’s fours won five successive Olympics from Sydney to Rio. Would the chief coach Italy, New Zealand or Canada bet his best rowers against that record? It would be wrong to suggest that Jurgen’s known ability and liking for the coxless four scared the others, but they did choose practical alternatives, which suited their strengths and left the citadel relatively less well defended.
Many nations have won the men’s rowing eights over 32 Olympiads but only Britain has won the eight and the four, that is, taking twelve of a possible fourteen men’s sweep gold medals ….twice. On both occasions, Sydney and Rio, Jurgen was in charge. That does not mean he spent every hour of every day coaching those crews.
The Sydney eight was coached by others but selected from a squad from which the four and pair had already been drawn. How could athletes ranked from 7th, at best, to perhaps 18th nationally, beat the whole world at the Olympics? A lot is attributable to the methods, wit and wisdom of Martin McElroy and Harry Mahon who inspired the “Will it make the boat go faster?” ethos in everything they did from wake up to the next sleep, but Grobler had set the standard to which all those men had trained. It was his predicted gold medal times from which the training percentages were derived, it was his podium athletes that the others had to chase to raise their game.
In Rio, he had taken personal charge of both the men’s four and eight, which of course meant standing on top of a pyramid built from the efforts of many people from the driver of the boat trailer to orthopaedic surgeons, but it was his career reputation that was at risk. Mastery of racing over 2000 metres of open water, subject to extremes of weather in conditions which can vary by more than one boat’s length between lanes one and six, depends on knowing every thing there is to know about your resources, human and mechanical.
Jurgen’s meticulous observation of every training session and trials race meant that he never claimed more than he knew his crew could deliver. His other great skill was the ability to turn a crew from underperformance through the season to first place at the championships. Matt Langridge, who had previous bronze and silver, was rowing in the seven seat of the 2016 eight, when it finished second by half a length to its eternal nemesis, Germany, in the last race of the normal season in Poznan. At the post race press conference, Langridge said. “I know we will win in Rio. Jurgen is the past master of bringing a crew on in the last six weeks at the high-altitude camp in Austria. When we come back to sea level, we will be ready.” They were.
Grobler indeed had been the dominant character and leader at all times, but there was David Tanner, the Director of Rowing before Purcell, as his consigliere, who negotiated the budgets and ensured the flow of ambitious athletes to fill the clogs of those who retired, spent, but with a hatful of medals to fondle. Another coach who enabled Jurgen, while having a similar stature in his own squad, was the Australian Paul Thompson, who had transformed the women’s squad from 2001. Thompson, Grobler and Tanner made all the selection decisions in a deeply argued, data driven coven. When sometimes a coach claimed his crew could win an event and should be selected, Jurgen would simply ask for the data which proved they were the best. Everything except recorded fact was fiction and should not be trusted.
In all the noise surrounding the Tokyo results, there have been accusations that Grobler’s training programmes were too tough and that there is an easier option. The anxiety dream of any top-level athlete is of arriving at the start of an event for which he has done no training. The last 250 metres of an Olympic course is not the place to ask whether you have done enough to deserve to be there. In East Germany and later Britain in November after each Olympics, Grobler would set the expected gold medal times for the next Olympiad a notch or two harder than anything achieved in the previous four years. This would take account of improvements in equipment, training and personnel.
Today this is normal practice in all nations, but Jurgen’s targets were usually the hardest. Every type of training was measured and recorded. At any time of the year, Grobler could give the athlete or crew coach a precise picture of an athlete’s fitness and health and set it in context of progress towards peak performance.
A consequence of pushing the athletes to their limits is that, from time to time, performance slips because they have been pushed too far. Jurgen, because he was master of the data, was able to make the fine judgements of when to lift his foot off the pedal. Anyone who witnessed his nurturing of Steve Redgrave’s forty-year-old body when it fell apart with simultaneous diabetes and colitis, as he climbed above the snowline of Mount Olympus, knows that he could fine tune and reduce workload as easily as increase it.
Five Olympic golds are not won by accident, or by the overtrained. Knowing that you have looked over the edge and kept going is vital for a champion in a sport as hard as top-level rowing. Alex Gregory, Olympic champion in Jurgen’s four in 2012 and 2016, said of Jurgen’s six-week final camp, “After Silvretta you know you will not stop in an Olympic final”.
When he saw a slew of similar third and fourth places from his team in the 2018 World Championships at Plovdiv in Bulgaria, he called them “Mickey Mouse” results. He judges himself as toughly as he judges his athletes. So, he did what he had to do the following year and played a shrewd hand, qualifying seven boats for Tokyo, the equal of Holland and more than any other nation. If you are not there you can’t win. Then, if he had been allowed to stay, he would have picked his best chance of a gold and concentrated his efforts on that crew. If he calculated a four as ranking closest to his expected gold medal time, he would have kept final selection as late as possible and ensured that he had covered all the exits. Even then, nothing is guaranteed, and the Tokyo course had more traps for the unwary than most.
If he had been in charge in Tokyo, six fourth places would have been his worst result since his East German Women’s squad bombed in 1981, beaten hollow by a surging Romania and a resurgent Russia… and incidentally, his single sculler was beaten by Beryl Mitchell, a British lightweight. Then he was still learning his trade and he took stock, actually reduced the endurance workload and concentrated on teaching his crews to get more out of the boat. If they couldn’t win, as they had before, on fitness and brute strength they had to learn to do it better. By 1984 they were on top of the world again, only to have their efforts cancelled by the Warsaw Pact boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.
Now widely expected to take the role of Director of Rowing, France, with 2004 Olympic Champion Sebastien Vielledent as Technical Director, he will have a similar task to the British, first get as many boats qualified so you can to open up your hand to play the trumps, then pick the event where the chance is brightest. Then concentrate your podium athletes in that boat and take personal charge of every item of their preparation. At the end, when you push them off the landing stage on the way to their destiny, all that is left is to wish them luck.