If you can keep your head…

Jurgen Grobler now gazing at rowers through French spectacles.

13 October 2021

By Göran R Buckhorn

At the 2020 Olympic Games this summer, Great Britain “only” took a silver and a bronze in rowing. Questions immediately were raised how this was possible. After having been on the top of the medal table for rowing at the last couple of Olympic Games, the country suddenly ended up on the 14th place in Tokyo.

Who was to blame?

The answer seemed very simple for some experts: whoever made Jurgen Grobler leave British Rowing in August 2020 was to be blamed. Grobler had been Chief Coach for the GB Team for 28 years and coached 20 British rowers to 33 Olympic gold medals, and 23 crews had medalled (including 16 gold) at World Championships since 1991.

In an HTBS article last August, Hugh Matheson, himself a three-time Olympian, mentioned who took the bad judgement call to give Grobler his marching orders:

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. 

On 30 July, Mark Davies, Chair of British Rowing, had defended the organisation’s Tokyo Campaign on British Rowing’s website. He wrote:

The worst performance by a British team since 1972, which is almost as long as I’ve been alive. Not a single gold medal. Shocking. Or it would be if it wasn’t so predictable with the change to a soft approach and the absurd decisions on coaches. Various people have got to go!

Well, actually, no. Plenty around us may be losing their heads, but we’re keeping ours.

However, six weeks later, someone did lose their head when British Rowing announced that Andy Parkinson had stepped down as Chief Executive of British Rowing, a position he had held for six years, to, as it was said, “explore new opportunities”.

The same month, September, the French Rowing Federation announced that Jurgen Grobler was going to join the federation as Executive High Performance Consultant.

And then on last Friday, 8 October, British Rowing announced that Brendan Purcell had stepped down as British Rowing Director of Performance, adding “Brendan and British Rowing have come to this decision by mutual consent”. Louise Kingsley, Deputy Director of Performance Pathways and Paralympic Programme, stepped in as interim Director of Performance.

So there, a second head had rolled.

On the medal podium at the 1992 Barcelona Games – Greg and Jonny Searle with their emotional cox Garry Herbert having received the gold medals in the coxed pairs.

Reactions came immediately. Garry Herbert, 1992 Olympic gold medal cox to Jonny and Greg Searle in the coxed pairs and now a banker and a commentator for the BBC, tweeted:

You couldn’t make this up. The 2 people responsible for removing the most successful Olympic rowing coach ever, leading the sport to its worst medal tally since 1980 have now gone, leaving the sport high & dry. Time now to bring in Redgrave or Searle (G) as performance director

I think Sir Steve is too busy with Henley Royal Regatta and not ready to tear up the contract he has with the Chinese Rowing Federation as their Performance Director, but maybe Greg Searle would be interested? He is known to be a man who likes a challenge.

After Greg Searle had taken the Olympic gold in the coxed pairs together with his brother Jonny and Garry Herbert in 1992 – the last time this boat class was an Olympic event – the three of them became World champions in the class in 1993. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Greg took a bronze in the coxless fours, and then changed to single sculls in 1997, winning the Diamonds at Henley Royal that year and a bronze at the Worlds. At the 2000 Sydney Games, Searle and Ed Coode in the coxless pairs led from the start to the 1,500-metre mark where they were passed by France, and with a few strokes before the finish line, the USA and the Australian crews squeezed passed the Brits leaving them with a dismaying fourth place. But what a race!

Ten years later, Searle returned to international rowing, now in the eights, where the GB crew took silver at the 2010 and 2011 World Championships. The following year, at age 40, Searle took an Olympic bronze medal in the eights in London.

So, who knows, maybe Greg Searle would be the right man for the job?

In three years, it’s time for the Olympic Games again, now in Paris. It’s going to be interesting to see if Britain will be able to step up their game. And, how will the French crews do with their German consultant?

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