Let there be no misunderstanding, Rowing as an Olympic sport is under threat of elimination as we know it. The recent furor over lightweights vs. ladies is simply the first warning shot. And it was clearly a shot that FISA had virtually no ability to deflect let alone to resist when coming from the mighty cannons of their IOC paymasters.
FISA have been allowed to present this as a victory of sorts, given that the IOC, started from the stand point of “no lightweight events.” The truth is though that despite the lip service paid to the importance of the Pepperami Men, their loss will not affect the sport of rowing greatly and may in fact boost its competitiveness slightly at the Olympics.
However the harsh reality of economics is intruding upon the modern day Olympics. Global cities, and their populations, are wising up to the huge and lasting financial burdens of hosting the games, and are accordingly failing to engage with the bidding process. No doubt feeling that it would be better to spend the money travelling to nations with less accountable public finances for the spectacle.
The Olympics needs to become cheaper to run, and the solid, built, Olympic venues need to provide greater and longer lasting value for money. It is unlikely that the IOC will not be looking to cut the cost of the bloated hospitality and administration budgets for its members when there are other easier targets.
Which brings us to the vulnerability of rowing in its present form. As a minority sport, even in its most thriving nations, Rowing requires a 2200m by 120m-ish lake to be conducted in the current fashion. Given that the cities rich enough to consider bidding for the games, also tend to have some of the highest land prices on Earth, a new rowing lake in the suburbs is a grotesque folly of expenditure. A rowing lake situated 50 miles from the nearest venue, surrounded by farmland, will be deemed too far from the action and could scupper your bid. Creative use of a natural body of water, will often lead to conditions that make racing a lottery even in the mildest of adverse conditions. The 2000m course is the biggest millstone around Olympic Rowing’s neck.
Indeed if we forget, as we probably should, the fate of the Pepperami men, the biggest change will come from the rather tediously titled IOC 20+20, Recommendation 2, Para 2 reads –
…..the maximum use of existing facilities and the use of temporary and demountable venues where no long-term venue legacy need exists or can be justified…..
Which means that there will be no future requirement for bidding cities to provide a straight, purpose built, six lane wide, 2000m long lake, if they have a 422m ornamental pond next to the El Presidente’s Winter Palace and Execution Theatre. Or if they have a rather bendy half row-able stretch of river that you could squeeze a couple boats onto. The Sudbury Olympic Regatta anyone? If St Neots were chosen, would they finally trim those bloody reeds on the stroke side bank just before the bend? Or would that ruin the fun.
Beyond this, The Olympic Men’s and Women’s Eights will probably become the “Olympic Gender Neutral Eight.” If you don’t believe me check out IOC Agenda 2020 Recommendation 11 which states…..
“The IOC to encourage the inclusion of mixed-gender team events.” aka Korfball eights. Not the worst thing that’s ever happened but would not exactly encourage the fastest boats ever to be put out on the lake.
As rowers, we need to accept that these “recommendations” from the IOC, may as well have been written on tablets of stone and handed to FISA at the summit of Mount Sinai. This is going to happen, or rowing will play an increasingly insignificant part in the Olympics. If at all.
Still don’t believe me. Why don’t you check out the Commonwealth Games Rowing Regatta, and the painful embarrassment of its non existence. A multisport event that invites Australia, Canada, the Home Nations, New Zealand and South Africa to compete, and does not feature rowing. That this has happened should make the mind boggle. That no one complains about this every four years should be evidence of the threat that international standard rowing is in. The truth is, it is simply too easy not to have rowing, and that not enough people care to force it to happen. Rowing is about to change.
So what are our options?
1) Tell FISA, to tell the IOC, to fuck off and die.
Withdraw the sport from the Olympics and stand proudly upon the banks of Dorney Lake at the 1000m mark in equidistant defiance.
I personally believe that for about 90-95% of all rowers in the UK this course of action will cause absolutely no immediate difference to their participation in and enjoyment of the sport. We will still have John Inverdale displaying his appalling ignorance of all things aquatic at the Boat Races. The BBC probably wouldn’t show the World Cup/Champs but we will have live drone streaming so who cares. Henley will still be a Summer festival for Posh Sporty People, Eights Head will still be a bleak endurance test and meteorological lottery, Vet Fours will still be an excuse for a piss up at Putney and we will all have a great time.
On the downside, the sport will slowly wither back to its pre-Redgrave, pre-Lottery Days. The elongated oxygen guzzling monsters that dominate the elite levels of the sport will find something else to turn their hand to, Rugby or swimming or CrossFit for the stumpier ones. This will probably mean a much better chance of actually winning stuff for a dedicated but not massively gifted 20-something rower at a club. We could return to the more level, if frequently corrupt and nepotistic playing field of the 1970’s, when rowing was all about who you knew, and who turned up on the day. It would be the days of a decent rower from a decent club racing the Ladies Plate, and the Grand and winning both on the same day. It genuinely could be a lot more fun.
But, it will be slower, smaller and less able, with fewer private companies investing money in providing new and exciting rowing toys. University Rowing will be hit hardest with no real next step for students to aspire to beyond BUCs, then this will feed into the booming school rowing community and start to close that down too.
Option 1 is a realistic shout. But be aware that it will mean fewer, and worse rowers in general, and less respect for us all in terms of the association with GB’s winningest sport.
2) Get ahead of the Games.
The Olympic Games want spectacle, and excitement, and viewership, they want a sport that will be watched and appreciated by millions worldwide. Rowing is not that? The Games want a cheaper, more viable, reusable facility. How could we make rowing that sport, with that location but still make it recognizably rowing. Realistically the options are as varied as one’s imagination.
2.1) Going Short
Sprint rowing, nearly every rower in the UK reading this will have raced distances under a 1000m in length. It is bloody hard work and very competitive, so why not make this the Olympic distance? From my point of view there is one huge argument for this and several arguments against it. In the “for” camp sits the overwhelming financial case for a shorter lake. A 1000m lake would not just be less than half the cost and then some, but it would be easier to bring it in close to the center of the bidding city, and to convert it to other uses. Against this idea is that although the event would still be rowing as far as the general viewing public are concerned with all the issues which that entails, but would radically alter the sport for everyone within rowing itself. A top flight men’s eight with a specifically trained crew would finish a 1000m race in a little over two minutes and twenty seconds by my estimate. Even men’s singles races would be done in well under three mins and fifteen seconds. The “endurance” bit of our power endurance sport would increasingly take a back seat. If Don’t believe me check out current 1000m ergo world record holder Sam Loch. Then compare his build and training to Rob Waddel. A pitbull vs. a greyhound. Is this still the sport that we as rowers wish to aspire too? Will it simply be too close to aquatic powerlifting to join a rowing club for? As a masters rower myself I can see the brilliance of the 1000m format, but also the limitations for those who love being faster for longer, that than just faster.
2.2) Get competitive
By the day of the final, many Olympic Rowing categories often have a serious competition problems or lack thereof. The most tarnished example of this has been the two Olympic campaigns of the Kiwi Pair. Whilst I cannot and will not ever criticise two such titanic athletes for doing their job well, the end result of their brilliance in the World Cups and Championships leading up to 2012 and 2016 was to turn the race itself into a contest for Silver and a coronation for Gold. No other nation with a choice put its top sweep-oarsmen in a pair for either contest. They all fled and were allowed to flee, into other bigger boats and into sculling from where they are now tentatively returning. The truth was that there were clearly athletes who could have challenged the Kiwi’s in 2016 if not 2012, but they played safe in the GB4- and the Croat 2x. The end result was a drama-less final with no real doubts about the winner from about halfway. If something could be done to force the greatest rowers in the world to race each other, rather than allowing them to carve out little fiefdoms among the leavings of every other nation, then the sport would be more of a spectacle.
Indeed the supposed high levels of competition in the lwt Men’s coxless fours are not due to the inherent nature of the event where the limits on body weight create a level playing field in terms of power (tell that to Jeremy Azou, or to the guys racing him) but the fact that the best lwt mens rowers have nowhere else to go.
Obvious ideas here are to force doubling up between the pairs and fours, and the eight. To row a pair or a four at the Olympics you have to be part of a qualified eight or four. Sucks to be part of a small rowing nation, but this could be solved by allowing multi-nation eights. It might also solve the embarrassing lack of entry’s into the women’s eight at the Olympics.
2.3 Getting Techy
Start by doing something to kill the parallax error from the static cameras so in the last 50 m of any race you can tell who is actually winning. The televised America’s cup boat race did this brilliantly projecting the perpendicular onto the bow of each boat, regardless where they are on the course. And put cameras on board the boats so we can see the sweat and the pain. Maybe cameras on one boat that are programmed to follow the lead boat, or the closest boat. Put the audience inside the boat, we need to feel the terror of seeing the boat next to you slide backwards and forwards in your field of view.
And this is before you do anything other than row in straight lines as fast as you can. Why can’t we get the boats to make a few tight slaloms down the course? The argument has always been that rowers can’t see where they are going. Fine, people have talked about forward facing rowing, but with the increasingly impressive 360 degree cameras available, a virtual reality headset is a much simpler proposition that changing all the boats. How much would that change the sport of, and the racing of rowing, if the rowers could see in front of them without turning their heads, for the hardship of wearing nothing more than a pair of ski goggles. All it would take would be one wide angle mini cam on the canvas, broadcasting to all eight rowers in a boat, showing them what they are chasing and how far they are away from catching it. It would revolutionize rowing and racing in rowing boats. Coxless boats could steer through the finest of gaps and take turns that would make a cox go white. Make the sport about the skills not just the power.
I can genuinely go on for many, many hours on this topic alone but it should be obvious that rather than go into the long dark night of oblivion, we can sex up multi lane racing, without changing it that much, just by improving the use of technology in the boat and in the broadcast.
2.1) Going Coastal
Yes really, the facilities are free to build, the Olympic sailors need a coast to launch from anyway, and the TV cameras will be on hand. It is a solution waiting to happen. Indeed the frenetic relays of beach rowing would be even more fun. Maybe it’s time we learned, as a sport, to deal with swell as well as flat water.
2.2) Going Round in Circles
A Bunch of Northerners tried this a couple of years ago. It didn’t catch on probably because people were afraid of breaking their boats. But, coxed fours/quads modified to turn through 180 degrees, at speed, racing round a buoyed oval looked like and incredible spectacle. Think of the velodrome’s keirin, but with boats. Again the key to victory would not just be with the power and oarsman-ship of the rowers but with the decision making ability and judgement of the cox.
The real advantage of this suggestion is that it allows rowing racing, other than flat out sprinting, on small bodies of water. It opens the sport up geographically to those who do not have long calm stretches of water (a surprisingly large chunk of the UK – Hertfordshire, East Kent, swathes of the South coast that only play on the sea to name but a few). Both in terms of grass roots participation and Olympic bids there are many clear benefits to this plan.
2.3) Going really short
Flat out sprint races are probably going to be popular, especially if you put them in clearly recognisable bodies of water (Leeds City Center, the Serpentine ect) and have close races with close outcomes, hopefully with the boats close enough together that most observers can tell who is winning. Personally though I think that this lacks ambition especially for small boats.
But if we are going to have to make the lakes smaller, let’s turn round at either end, coastal style. 4 lengths of 300m in a pair, whipping it round a buoy with the greatest of effort at each end. This won’t work with eights (I think, or again this might just be a lack of ambition) but everything up till then will be a blast.
Or relays, don’t turn the pair around at the end, start another boat, maybe the ladies pair or the double. Imagine a 6 by 500m relay, with the eight handing off to the quad, to the four, to the double to the pair, and finally the singles. Or even the other way round. Or make it 12 by 500m with the ladies boats AND men’s boats racing all at once. Maybe even limit the number of rowers to 16, so someone from the eight has to row in the double when the four gets back to them. Maybe even a free for all on the order so that coaches can juggle their athletes between boats so that nations with less than 16 rowers can get all the legs in.
2.4) Going Fast, Really Fast!
Hydrofoils. They already have them on kayaks, yachts and associated sailboats, Stand-Up Paddle boards, which are otherwise the world’s least good water sport, and various sailboards, kiteboards, wake boards and surfboards*. If the kayaks or the Stand-Up Paddle boards (god forbid) can go faster than an eight (the foil kayak already can over 1000m apparently), we don’t have a sport left. Let’s get ahead of the curve. This would change rowing more than anything listed above, because we wouldn’t need rowing shells any more, literally all we would need would be a large surfboard with riggers on top and foils underneath. The cost of boat purchase could be halved, eights could have 4 lots of two rowers sitting side by side, rough water would stop being a problem (the foils fly under the surface, and sitting the boat is actually a lot easier. And as you can see, foils can surf on waves (Going Coastal), and turn on a sixpence (going round in circles)
These are my ideas to rescue what I still believe is one of the greatest, simplest, purest, sports known to man. They are there to be shot down, and all might prove impractical, unsuccessful or impossible. But as rowers we need to choose where our sport goes before someone chooses for us.