“The lightweight rower is a long, thin stick of muscle tissue, dehydrated to the point of sterility, burnt brown by the sun, perpetually furious, and hungry to the point of auto-cannibalism, he has truly earned the moniker of ‘Peperami Man'” – Anno Dryseagacker, 2017
Like most heavyweight male rowers I despise all men’s lwt rowers and all men’s lwt events, especially when they go faster than me. Unlike most heavyweight rowers on social media, I will not shed any false tears at the final confirmation that Tokyo 2020 will not feature the lwt men’s 4-. This is despite knowing many good men and women who race lightweight who are decent, talented, sportsmanlike oarspersons in the two months a year that they are allowed to eat like an athlete pursuing a power endurance sport. And indeed it is this very issue that is the fundamental flaw at the heart of lightweight-ism in rowing and beyond.
Whilst the concept of lightweight rowing as a protected category is understandable in a sport so clearly dominated by the tall and the heavy, however its presence at the Olympic Games is a puzzle. The motto of the Olympic Games is Citius – Altius – Fortius. These words mean Faster – Higher – Stronger, which are indeed excellent principals to base a sporting competition around.
And yet, rowing remains the only Olympic straight line speed sport with protected, handicap categories other than biological sex. There is no fat barstard’s road cycling, there is no white man’s 100m, there is no short arse’s 200m freestyle. Outside the Citius sports, men’s gymnastics rarely takes kindly to those above 5’10” whilst the shot putt has no mercy upon the physically weak. The Olympics is the business of competing without exceptions and categories. The task is set, here, to there, by boat, with four oars, one per man, may the devil take the hindmost and his three laggardly compatriots. Why is any mention made of how much the participants weigh?
In fact only the laughably druggy sport of weightlifting makes such allowances. In the combat sports, there is a question of safety, but here too there is an ever increasing subdivision from the traditional light, medium and heavy weight categories into a layman’s nightmare of counter-intuitive terms and enough different chances to win that Masters rowing in the UK looks positively elitist in comparison
So why did rowing choose to handicap itself with a handicap, why weigh itself down with a weight category? Well they came up with the idea in the seventies, so they were probably high. Like, really, really high.
Although to be fair when you listen to Denis Oswald FISA’s ex-President and now Honorary President for Life, which in no way sounds dodgy, undemocratic and totally Sep Blatter or anything, he did seem to have rather pure motives –
For me this was my goal from the beginning – the universality of the sport.
One of the means to achieve this was adding lightweight rowing to the programme of the Olympic Games. This was one of the most difficult tasks that I had. When I visited Asia, especially South East Asia and Latin America and asked them why they did not support rowing, they said ‘we have no chance with our smaller, lighter people, so we don’t treat rowing as an Olympic sport.’
I saw lightweight rowing as a way to get more countries involved……for example, I studied the average weight of the world population. Lightweights equalled 70 per cent of the world. I was able to convince national federations that our sport could not ignore so many people.
All of which is is indicative of a fair, honest and decent man, motivated by the finest desires to see the incredible sport of rowing expand and bring its munificence and magnificence to more people round the world. Unfortunately it is also exactly the kind of thing that a megalomaniac dictator of an international sporting federation would say to justify a blatant attempt to grub up more cash for a central governing body from tin pot third world dictatorships looking for the fig leaf of legitimacy that international sporting participation can bring.
Whatever the motivations it happened, and it was driven by one word – Universality.
Which sounds great, but like a lot of things that sound great, it is actually a little bit more complicated than that. Universality as a concept is right up there in Para 1.2 of Article 1 of the IOC Code of Ethics, but exactly what they mean by that is really still questionable. The definition (outside of mathematics) of Universality is –
The quality of involving or being shared by all people or things in the world or in a particular group.
Now this should mean that Denis was quite right in his drive to change the rules of rowing such that 70% of the world would be able to have a crack at Olympic rowing, and win stuff. Now here’s where we get to the rub and the rub is political. Do you believe in Universality of Outcome, or Universality of Opportunity? If you are an Outcome kind of guy or girl, giving all those people of the world who would not even make it to the start line of the Olympic regatta due to the fact that they had small parents, a shot a making the grade in a lightweight boat seems pretty reasonable. If you fall on the opportunity side of things then giving everyone in the world no matter how small they are a chance to make the start line, in a boat is more your bag but this means that again you set the task you set the criteria for success in that task, and you see who makes it, you don’t ask how much they weigh. For the record, I am, have been and will always be an opportunity kind of guy, and the 52 boat seats taken up by rowers who for the most part could not make it into open category boats (most, not all,) is a travesty.
But this still doesn’t cover all the possible definitions of Universality. The last of which works on the principle of The Olympics is a competition for all nations, thus all nations should have a shot at competing all sports, even when they don’t have anyone that is very good at that sport! Thus we have Eric the Eel, Trevor the Tortoise, and even Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, who have all competed at a level vastly above their ability for the sake of Universality of representation in elite international competition. This is what Oswald was on about when he said – “Lightweights equalled 70 per cent of the world”. Countries from places other than Europe and the Commonwealth deserve their slot in front of the stake boat too.
The difference is that swimming, sprinting and ski jumping have let those, who are not very good at their sport, compete. They have not been given their own event just so that another, different flag can be waved. The IOC is right that it is time to end this rather bizarre situation and use the spare berths to provide a greater level of equality (mentioned once, much further down in the charter use, Ctrl+f to find it) in Olympic rowing. The conflict between universality and equality has been noted for a long time with regards to the presence of the lightweight men’s 4- and the absence of the women’s 4-. That equality should win out in this case is especially relevant given the lack of Universality in the lightweight men’s 4- Olympic competition. In the Olympic regattas between 1996 and 2016, of the 83 total entrants to the lightweight men’s 4- only 13 in total are from “non traditional rowing nations”. which is about 16%. Which ain’t a great result if you are going for more Universality. Not only this, my assessment of “non traditional rowing nations” is pretty generous and subjective given that I have included China and Ireland, who seem pretty keen on a continued presence in international rowing. If we are more scientific and we include only nations that did not send a heavyweight crew to the Olympics that year then we only have 6 entrants (China 2016, Ireland 2004, Ireland and Japan 2000, and Ireland and Portugal 1996) or 7%, who could be said to have truly benefited from the Universality of the men’s lightweight 4-.
The men’s lightweight 4- does very, very little to improve the diversity and universality of rowing at the Olympic Games. In comparison the men’s heavyweight 1x requires fewer athletes, (33 or less in most years) and contains vastly more non traditional rowing nations (Including Algeria, Taipei, Kenya, Iraq and Kazakhstan, an incomplete list of names taken from one Olympiad alone). The men’s lightweight 4- does however ensure 48-52 otherwise perfectly capable women’s heavyweight oarsmen do not attend the Olympics.
The original purpose of lightweight rowing, which was to spread rowing far and wide across the globe has failed. It is succeeding in the men’s heavyweight 1x.
If drugs are going to enter into international rowing it is going to be via the alumni of certain British elite rowing, less than elite education, institute of higher education.
Or via a part of rowing where people have to maximize power whilst losing weight. Remember how they did that in cycling. Does anyone really think that triamcinolone would not actually be a huge boon to Lightweight rowers? If so, what’s next for the talented oarsman with a naturally low heamocrit?
Lightweight rowing is the soft underbelly of this sport for the mad Italian doctors and their needles. Don’t let them in.
“….But, dude!!!!” I hear you cry, “the quality and competitivity of the lightweight men’s 4- is so great and the finals are so tight because no one has a physical advantage…..
“STOP!!!!!!” I roar in return. First there are clear physical advantages and disadvantages between boats in lightweight rowing, regardless of the almost uniform weight of the rowers. Let me say this once and once only – power to weight ratio fluctuates between rowers of the same body mass significantly. Some lightweight rowers can pull 5’57” for 2k and some are happy to break 6’10”. Which is really the difference between Olympic Gold and wining the B final. Secondly the apparently tight racing in the lightweight men’s 4- is mainly a comparison to the lack of tight racing in the men’s heavyweight events.
This is because if you keep coming second or third or fourth in the heavyweight mens 4-, through the numerous World Cup and World Championship racing, you stop trying and run away. To the eight, or to the pair, or to sculling, or the velodrome, or wherever, but you run. Usually to a place where a chance of a medal is less certainly lousy. Lightweight rowers on the other hand, have nowhere to run. The second third and fourth best lightweight men’s 4- crews in the world usually have little choice but to try and make their boat go faster. As a result there are usually three of four very closely matched boats in the final, all of whom believe they are in with a chance, and will not break until the very, very end. Unlike many men’s heavyweight races, which are a coronation for gold, and private battle for silver and bronze and a scrappy contest not to come last. As a comparison please see this race which was the last truly competitive 2k race in the international men’s pair until 2017.
The tight and exciting races are not about the wonderful nature of lightweight rowing, they are about the failure to provide a structure to international heavyweight rowing that forces the best rowers in the world to actually race each other in the same final in the Olympics and World championships.
Aesthetics, Health and Wealth.
“Okay,” you say reluctantly “but lightweight rowers just look cooler, they’re lean and they’re buff and they’re vascular, and these day heavyweights just look like beanpoles who’ve missed arm day at the gym.”
No lightweights look like a stick of peperami.
And this is the biggest issue that I want to talk about. The idea that removing lightweight rowing from the Olympics will be better for lightweight rowers themselves. As Lars Hartig Former German Peperami man said recently –
“The most difficult (as a lightweight) was mentally, as it was always hard to be on a diet all the time. I had no pleasure in life. I had lost the pleasure to row. It was all about the discipline necessary to make weight and even after the race I couldn’t really enjoy life. I couldn’t even go out with my friends as I had no energy, I was always thinking about food and it was really obsessive. It was not healthy.”
Not only this the constant training on restricted diets can often lead to significant long term physical (digestive complaints, and osteoporosis) and emotional issues (anorexia , bulimia and generally disordered eating) even when it is done right. When it is ineffective it leads to rowers starving and dehydrating themselves to make weight, than racing in a compromised state, followed by binge on junk.
The reason for this is that most lightweights are not in fact lightweights.
This above all other things is my biggest problem with the whole category, and one that I alluded at the start of this essay. Lightweight rowing does not do what it says on the tin. With some notable exceptions, lightweight rowers are middleweights who could not compete in the open category, starving down to make a protected category. Most lightweight rowers competing at an elite or international level (World Cup/Champs, Olympics) are not genetically small people excluded by the nature of the sport, but the genetically average sized, who are excluded by people better suited to the sport. This is why lightweights have starved themselves to death in order to row.
Lightweight rowing, regardless of whether we are talking about the lightweight men’s 4-, lightweight men’s 2x, or lightweight women’s 2x, is not allowing smaller people to compete at the highest level, it is damaging it participants, it is contributing to the competition crisis in the open categories. It needs to be stopped in it current form.
Do I think that lightweight rowing should be scrapped altogether, no I do not, but I do think that it should be come a beginner category, a protected novice-like status, like peewee basketball, to give an entry into the sport for the less naturally adapted, and to give them time to develop talent and build physical strength. This category should be both weight limited and time limited, a category that everyone should be looking to leave and eventually (two years, eight regattas….?) that people should be forced to leave. It should not be a weird dead end elite category filled with people who are not very good at their own sport but still win Olympic medals in it.
Realistically, if you want to get involved in a leg heavy sport, that rewards an enormous VO2 max and a tendency toward disordered eating with, money, racing and osteoporosis, don’t be a rower, buy an expensive road bike and go fast whilst looking where you are going. You will be given money and support and will be surrounded by other people who starve themselves and you will probably marry a more attractive partner. You will be home. You may be ruining your health but you will be rewarded with respect, comradeship, cash and sex. Alternatively stay in lightweight rowing where you will always be the slowest, shortest, least sexy person in your demographic (pace coxes, you will always be the true winners here) skimping by on college scholarship or on meager government wages.
Why would any sane person choose the path of the peperami? Just don’t
**Some time my writing is so boring, if you are falling asleep may I recommend Modafinil