5 January 2022
By Chris Dodd
The latest chair to become vacant when the music stops is in Hong Kong, where Chris Perry has sat since 1986. But, says Chris Dodd, Asian rowing will retain Perry’s effervescence.
Chris Perry rowed at Loughborough University while studying sport science and progressed to Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association (NCRA) until injury put paid to his Olympic aspirations in 1984. The big man with the booming voice switched to coaching at the Nottingham high performance centre, drawing all-comers from clubs in the East Midlands region of England. The NCRA was more a coaching academy than a club, turning out medal-winning light and heavy crews for a quarter of a century. It drew on the Norwegian Thor Nilsen’s training and testing techniques, and its coaches and associates penetrated the top echelons, including Mark Lees, Sean Bowden, John Wilson, Ian Wilson, Robin Williams, Harry Mahon and Hugh Matheson. And Chris Perry.
The youngest person to hold an Amateur Rowing Association gold coaching award in his day, Perry arrived in Hong Kong in 1986 on a three-month assignment to help out at the Asian Games. He was invited to stay on after the games to develop rowing and kayaking at the new Jubilee Sports Centre. At the time, Hong Kong rowing was dependent on begging and borrowing everything from the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. The Jubilee Centre (now the HK Sports Institute) was funded by the Jockey Club to put several sports onto the international map. They asked Perry how much he wanted to stay on. ‘I picked a number that I thought was ridiculously high, and they said “done”, so I stayed!’ Another attraction of the Jubilee in Sha Tin was meeting his future wife, Fay Ho, who is now Continental Representative for Asia on the World Rowing council and deputy secretary general of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee.
In 1988, Chris took HK crews to the World Championships and sought technical help from Thor Nilsen. His rowers were soon attending camps in Italy, where the Norwegian ran the Italian high-performance programme at Piediluco. In the 1970s, Nilsen had developed a coaching academy open to all at Banyoles, Spain, and was the guru behind FISA/World Rowing’s development programme. Perry learned managerial and organisation skills from Nilsen, and he was to become Nilsen’s man in Asia.
Perry found Thor deceptive; ‘When you talk to Thor he goes off on all sorts of tangents, but when he’s organising something he’s very systematic,’ Perry says. ‘The way he talks and the way he does are a little bit different. One story follows another, but if he promises a boat on Monday, the boat is always there on Monday.’
At Piediluco, Thor organised ergo testing and evaluation, commented on athletes’ physiology and potential, wrote tailored programmes for elite and developing crews, and created a good atmosphere in which coaches got together in the evenings. Camps would include races where everyone joined in – waves of boats coming down the course, mixed nationalities – before a final regatta. Piediluco was to become a second home to Perry’s squad.
Having been persuaded to stay in the then British colony, Perry realised that Hong Kong required structure, a rowing centre, ergs, boats and education needs. Resources were limited and there were few replacements available for drop-outs. At the start, the Jockey Club funded him like a horse trainer, giving him grants for furniture, moving house, school fees and pension.
He submitted his proposals for the institute to the HK government and to Major General Guy Watkins, chairman of the Jockey Club. Watkins was, Perry says, incredibly super-efficient. ‘He would give you 10 minutes to explain what you needed. If you rambled, he would kick you out.’ William Purvis, the chairman of the institute, was also chairman of Hong Kong Bank, and between them Watkins and Purvis practically controlled Hong Kong’s finance. Watkins said: ‘Do it’, and Purvis found sponsors to support a centre containing twelve sports, with Perry in charge of oars and paddles. Thirty-five years later, Perry leaves the institute as head rowing coach with a pile of achievements behind him. He remains a board member of the HK rowing association as technical director.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In 1989, World Rowing’s development plan was the key element in safeguarding rowing’s place in the Olympics, and Perry volunteered to become consultant for Asia. In the off-season, he travelled all over helping with customs difficulties and the installation of the ‘rowing in the box’ scheme of instant boathouses consisting of a container equipped with boats, racks, workbench and tools. He arranged coaching courses and camps. The Asian economy was quite strong, and help came from China when they started to build and transport boats.
Meanwhile, Perry’s wife, Fay, became Hong Kong’s first Olympian and had good links with Chinese and Asian sport, besides being expert in the culture of the vast region. She knew how to get things done; one lesson for her husband Chris was to curtail his brashness – sometimes you could hear his voice on the Bund in Shanghai. The variety of cultures was exciting, taking him to every part of the continent – the central Russian speaking areas, the Indian, Pakistan, Bangladesh parts, the Arab countries in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia…
Chris says that Nilsen and Sheila Stephens, who was director of the programme until recently, are very good at matching rowing to charities and NGOs with parallel aims and objectives, examples being Unesco, the United Nations, European commissions, Olympic Solidarity and bodies assisting refugees and victims of war crimes.
‘Thor made his reputation by thinking outside the box, and I like that way of thinking,’ Perry says. ‘The challenges are so immense, and we are trying to sell rowing, so we have to integrate rowing into society, not just make it about racing at the Olympics. Our clients need education as well as those things that we must deliver. We mustn’t just dig into their pockets and steal their money before they appear at the Olympics.’
In the early days, Nilsen described a lot of sports as bandits. ‘But World Rowing developed high integrity to earn Olympic Solidarity’s trust. If the federation said it would deliver something, whether it was a budget, accounts, receipts etc, it would deliver,’ Perry says.
By 2019, rowing ranked seventh for the number of scholarships awarded by Olympic Solidarity, and ranked third in the number of scholars who got to compete in the Olympics. World Rowing had also increased its member federations significantly. But the recent challenge is caused by the IOC’s change of thrust from universality – still important – to entertainment and gate appeal. According to Perry, gender equality and marketability are now the main thrusts. ‘Gender equality is difficult in Asian countries. It’s not enough to find someone to row. We now have to achieve numbers and ways to sustain programmes.’
Perry’s checklist of successes illustrates both the diaspora and diversity of his region. Southeast Asia has become a rapidly growing area with its own rowing association and investment in coach education. India has experienced success born largely of its own initiative. China, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong enjoy success and no longer count as developing countries. They attend camps at their own expense. The Arab speaking part of Asia, and Cambodia and Laos still lack funds.
Camps, particularly those before big events, attract funding and raise entry numbers, paying countries to attend the event. At the other end of the scale are Bahrain, Laos and Cambodia where athletes sent to a novices’ camp at the Asian Championships had never previously seen a rowing boat.
Camps don’t get far without boats, and the programme has benefitted in the past by European clubs giving old boats to new countries. World Rowing has researched design and materials such as glass fibre and epoxy resin and provided courses in building and repairs. China has given enormous support, putting its hand up at every appeal. Chinese manufacturers have given and loaned boats, no doubt with an eye on a massive future market. A few years ago, Swift donated five containers of boats to the Asian championships.
Perry’s score from when he began at the Jubilee Centre with nothing to his departure from Hong Kong rowing on 31 December includes participation in eight Olympics and nine Asian Games, finalists at two World Championships, two U23 medals, two Coastal medals, 19 Asian Games medals, 71 Asian Junior medals and 72 Asian Championship.
But Perry is not abandoning his other interests. When Fay and Chris are not at their villa near Lake Maggiore, a move inspired by falling in love with Italy during years of trips to Piediluco, they will continue their work with World Rowing. The voice that inspires rowing in Asia will still be heard.