Exit the ‘Rowing Guy’

Matt Smith (left), World Rowing’s Executive Director, will step down from his position on 31 December 2021 and will be replaced by Vincent Gaillard (right). In the centre is Jean-Christophe Rolland, World Rowing President. Photo: World Rowing.

31 December 2021

By Chris Dodd

Matt Smith dips and buckets out of World Rowing today, 31 December. Chris Dodd traces the life and times of the executive director who has guided rowing for a quarter of a century.

Visitors to World Rowing’s headquarters in Lausanne may have been fortunate – or unfortunate, depending on their point of view – to be greeted by the strains of a tuba. Matt Smith, the executive director for the past 25 years, was in the habit of playing his horn early in the day. Matt was headed for a career as a professional musician before he caught the rowing bug at the University of California (UCLA), Los Angeles, in the early 1980s. The MBA student went to the Olympics as assistant team manager for USRowing in 1984. He nursed coaching ambitions and was pointed in the direction of Thor Nilsen, the technical director of Italian rowing who ran a continuous international programme alongside the Italians at Piediluco in Umbria. 

They eventually met by chance in a Montreal metro station during the lightweight rowing championships later that year. Matt introduced himself and inquired of job prospects in Italy. The Norwegian asked if he was computer literate and suggested he get in touch when he had completed his degree. In January 1986, Smith flew to Brussels on People’s Express to be met by Nilsen and his dog Glocky for a two-day drive to Piediluco towing the boat belonging to the Hansen brothers, Thor’s Norwegian stars.

Matt’s first task as Nilsen’s assistant was to speed-learn Italian and his second to co-edit Be A Coach, the manual written by 20 of the world’s top coaches gathered by Thor at the West German rowing academy in Ratzeburg.

Thor Nilsen. Matt acknowledges him together with Denis Oswald and Mike Sweeney as three of the people that he owes greatly for their “support, advice and trust” during his career.

Meanwhile, World Rowing (then called Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron, FISA) was facing change. Thomi Keller, the former oarsman who steered FISA successfully through the Cold War, Olympic boycotts and impecuniousness, was preparing to retire after holding the presidential tiller since 1958. He saw the creation of an umpires commission and a Code des Courses for racing procedure, stripped FISA’s medal ceremonies of national flags and anthems on the grounds that ‘countries do not win regattas’ in anticipation of the IOC’s recognition of East Germany to compete under its own flag. Keller also created the General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAIF) in 1967, an irritant to the IOC demanding a third of the IOC’s huge TV income, a prominent role in the selection of host cities (Mexico City was next in line and its facilities were under question), and a congress for Olympic stakeholders – national Olympic committees, sports federations and the IOC itself. 

Keller was wedded to amateur rowing’s traditions and roots, but he recognised that the sport must move on if it was to retain its place in the Olympic programme in the face of newer, more popular sports. Piecemeal reforms included the extension of the course distance for women and juniors to 2000 metres, standardised procedures for running regattas, and sponsors’ logos were allowed on boats and kit. A professional secretary general was added to FISA’s payroll, and new commissions were set up, including those for media and marketing. 

The direction of travel that emerged in the late 1980s hinged on the vitality of staying in the Olympics for the sake of rowing’s future and FISA’s income. The development programme was the key to this, and Nilsen went cap in hand to the newly established Olympic Solidarity fund, and in 1992 Matt Smith became director of development. There were five aims: increase the number of countries affiliated; generate regatta entries from federations that never sent crews to participate; increase entries from those that did send entries; encourage rowing for juniors, under-23s, women, lightweights, masters, indoor and pleasure rowers; and develop rowing, and good fellowship, where there was none. 

Matt Smith in FISA mode. Picture: canottaggio.org

Matt’s first act was to visit 29 countries, 18 of which were in Asia, including three former Soviet states, and six of the seven European countries included were former members of the Soviet Union. In October 1992, he presented FISA with a plan that identified seven areas to be addressed – qualified coaches and umpires, facilities and equipment, opportunities for competition, scientific and medical support, activities for clubs, schools and federations, and ‘rowing awareness’, a term describing the environment in which the sport takes place. It recognised that coach education without management technique and decent equipment was futile. 

The target was to produce regular local, district, regional and national competitions at all levels. Education manuals were published in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. FISA aimed to have 100 member federations by 1996 and 115 by 2000. Participation in world championships was set to increase to 65 by 1995, 85 by 1999, met by assistance with coaching material, courses, camps and a supply of secondhand boats and boat building courses. It was seen as essential that opportunities for lightweights must be created if rowing was to appeal to Africans, Asians and South Americans, and programme was imitated in Central and South America under Ricardo Ibarra. Courses in coaching, boat building and repair soon followed. 

In late 1989, tremors rocked FISA’s world and presented the new executive director, John Boultbee, with fresh challenges. President Keller died of a heart attack in September. Then on 9 November, attendees at the federation’s coaching conference in Indianapolis suspended belief as they watched the Berlin Wall being hacked to pieces on television. The scene in Berlin signalled the demise of the top rowing nation, the Democratic Republic of Germany, and the end of the Cold War. Denis Oswald became president and inherited the drive to modernise FISA. 

Denis Oswald (left) and Matt Smith (right) present Drew Ginn with the Thomas Keller Award in 2014. Picture: FISA.

Matt’s endeavour at development made him the ideal replacement for Boultbee when the latter moved to the Australian Institute for Sport in Canberra in 1995. Since then, Matt has presided over 25 years of roller-coasting changes in international rowing from FISA’s offices near the IOC in Lausanne’s ‘house of sport’. 

These include the addition of annual championships for juniors and under-23s, an annual series of world cup regattas, regional Olympic qualification regattas and more activities for indoor rowers, masters and pleasure rowers. The Olympic programme admitted events for lightweights in Atlanta 1996 and now offers equal events for men and women in sculling and rowing. There is a booming Paralympic programme and regular conferences for coaches, medics and regatta organisers. More than 150 federations are affiliated to World Rowing, and the members are sending more crews to competitions. There has been an amazing rise in indoor rowing. ‘We have to give thanks to the creators Dick and Peter Dreissigacker whose invention of indoor rowing machines gave hope to so many during lockdown,’ Matt says.

The 151 nations that were members of FISA by 2017. Picture: Facebook.

But there have been challenges, the worst being the COVID saga that tore up the events programme. Discussing cancellations, financial consequences and emotional disappointment with organising committees is very awkward, Matt says, without having to deal with attempts to influence decisions by people whose opinions were based on their personal situations.

Also bothersome were the Russian doping scandals of 2007 and 2016 that led to reconstruction of the Russian rowing federation and the wrecking of its entry to the Athens and Rio games. The scandals also generated many unfriendly messages, some of which were quite personal.

As he leaves office, Matt is most proud of the quality and consistency of World Rowing’s events, and of persuading the Paralympic Games to include rowing. The former involved varied input from volunteers, sponsors and the FISA secretariat, and the latter ‘took a lot of time and patience and several trips to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) headquarters in Bonn to gain their trust and confidence and create a programme that matched their goals and priorities,’ Matt says. ‘This was achieved in 2005 for the games in 2008. My sincere thanks go to former president Phil Craven, former CEO Xavier Gonzales and former sport director David Grevemberg.’ 

The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron (FISA) became World Rowing in 2020.

Among the unfinished business on the desk for Vincent Gaillard, his successor, is the pending introduction of coastal rowing into the Olympics in 2028. World Rowing is now committed to persuading the IOC to take coastal rowing into the Olympic programme on the grounds that it will attract large audiences and bring action close to spectators. It arises from the development programme’s adroitness in tailoring boats and rowing to places where whalers, pilot gigs, fishing boats and the like abound, such as in Caribbean and Pacific islands that have seas and oceans into which to dip their oars, but no rivers or lakes.

Guin Batten, who chairs the World Rowing commission that promotes coastal, says that Matt’s creativity and leadership has been huge in encouraging innovation. As a student at UCLA, he rowed the rough offshore water between Catalina Island and Los Angeles that typically takes more than five hours. This informed his understanding of the potential and the limitations of viable coastal championships. 

The irony of the coastal campaign is that World Rowing has ditched Olympic events for lightweights in order to meet the IOC’s insistence on equal events for men and women and its bar on increasing the maximum number of competitors. The lightweights presence in the Olympics is being reduced for the same cause as they were welcomed into the line-up at the Atlanta Games in 1996.

The future? The 2019 World Rowing Coastal Championships in Hong Kong. Picture: World Rowing.

If you wonder why Matt has never sought pastures new, the answer lies in the nature of rowing and its family. ‘Our federation is a different animal in the panoply of international sports federations,’ Matt says. ‘Our people are motivated to help rowers and rowing. We simply have not allowed personal interests or commercial interests to influence our decisions. We have a great atmosphere in the organisation, respectful and friendly, even during difficult periods. I tried my best to make people comfortable, to communicate on a first name basis and keep the “family” atmosphere at World Rowing. We are small, so we can’t afford to fight each other. We are much stronger when we are together and fighting against the other sports.’

This is borne out by Sheila Stephen-Despans who followed him as director of development at World Rowing. ‘Matt always wanted to be sure we understood that we were a team. We supported one another to be our best and to be there when things did not go smoothly. Matt taught us to consider all aspects of a situation and to understand where different stakeholders were coming from and why…he is a person who really brings his humanity and team mindset to every situation…’

His secret, she says, is calmness in the face of chaos. ‘I have always appreciated how, when everything seemed to be getting wild, such as ugly weather coming in at Rio Olympics and many other weather-related situations that can so impact a regatta, he would calmly gather information from the fairness committee, consult with teams, weather forecasters and organisers, assess the best and safest course of action for athletes and move us forward. Such an approach may seem second nature, but I can safely say that with people coming at you from all directions with different ideas and concerns, the ability to steer through with a calm head is truly to be admired!’

Matt acknowledges luck at having great colleagues. ‘I hesitate to list names, but the three who would be at the top of such a list are Thor Nilsen who first hired me in Piediluco, Denis Oswald who first hired me for FISA and Mike Sweeney, former chair of the regattas commission, with whom I worked closely for many years. I owe these gentlemen a lot for their great support, advice and trust.’ 

Matt’s office. World Rowing is based in The Maison du Sport International, an office complex in Lausanne, Switzerland.  It was created in 2006 to entice all the World’s sports governing bodies to bring their headquarters to Lausanne, near the International Olympic Committee, to improve communication between these bodies.

The rowing community owes Matt a huge debt when he paddles away from FISA toward the horizon. Among the challenges awaiting Gaillard on 1 January is the adoption of the course for the 2028 Olympics at Long Beach, endorsed by World Rowing last month. Long Beach was lined with nodding donkeys and open to the ocean when used in 1932. There is only room for 1500-metre lanes – 500 short of the normal 2000 for international regattas. The shorter distance will alter training regimes, tactics and the outlook beyond 2028.

Then there are post-COVID changes ahead for rowing, sport and society. And Gaillard’s World Rowing would do well to cast an eye on the United States, where student programmes are the backbone of rowing. Universities and colleges are competing to cut ‘Olympic sports’ in favour of fistfuls of dollars being diverted to already bloated football and basketball budgets. The independent Rowing magazine devoted the whole of its November edition to Gilbert M Gaul’s investigation entitled ‘The End of Sports’. Gaul, a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter, spells out the catastrophe being fought on campuses over the last 18 months, partly brought about by COVID.

Rowing’s editorial says that the ‘end of sports’ works in three ways: the end of teams and sports for many college athletes; the end of the Olympic model of athlete participation; and the end, or purpose, of college sports, the overarching question raised by Gil’s inquiry. 

‘Rowing is esteemed, rightly, because it builds and tests character’, Rowing says. ‘Moreover, the apt title of Gaul’s story begs the question ‘is rowing about TV contracts and entertainment? Or is it about teaching student-athletes the lifelong lessons of discipline, teamwork, camaraderie, competition, physical activity and devotion to a goal?’

Matt Smith will, of course, be in evidence behind the scenes for the next 12 months to support President Jean-Christophe Rolland and smooth Vincent Gaillard’s passage into World Rowing. And having been the ‘rowing guy’ for 30 years, he will be looking at projects outside the sport where his experience will add value and perspective. 

An impression of Matt playing the tuba by Tim Koch.

Matt is also looking forward to more time for his hobbies. In 1992, he sold his tuba, but in 2011 he chanced to find that its maker was in Munich. He paid a visit and purchased three! One is in Lausanne, and early birds at the World Rowing office must endure an hour’s tuba practice every morning from 6.30.

Matt has a stack of books to read and reels of ‘film-noir’ to watch once he’s done his daily stint on his Watt Bike. ‘I will be living in Rome with my wife and son, enjoying sunshine, good food and delicious beverages,’ he says.

We’ll see you on the towpath, Matt. Or perhaps on the tuba in a marching band!

One comment

  1. There was a book written long ago on the formation of the IOC. I think it was called the “Trilogy of the rings” not to be confused with Tolkien’s trilogy. In a chapter the authors wrote that the only man of character representing their NGB was Tommy Keller the head of FISA who cared more for the athletes in his organization then the profits that could be gained running the NGB. It nice to see that is still the case today in our sport! Jim Dietz

    Sent from my iPhone


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