How do you solve a problem like the PRI

You don’t.

The ranking system is not the problem. Please repeat after me…. “The ranking system is not the problem.”

The problem with Nov-Elite categories were that loads and loads of people lost races and thus never advanced beyond the one point of Sen-3, if they made it that far. Its called a Pareto distribution, which is a really fancy way of saying life, and rowing, ain’t fair. The PRI system was meant to solve this.

The problem with the PRI is that it does not take into account the quality of crews that you have beaten as opposed to the number of the crews you have beaten. This can apparently be fixed using a smarter system such as the ELO ranking system.

The problem with the ELO type system that has been suggested as a PRI fix, is that no one in rowing cares what ranking points they have. They only care that they have sacrificed hours of their precious time, week in and week out to coax fitness from their aging bodies all winter, got up at 4am to drive a hundred fifty miles to some random 2.2 km long ditch in an unsuitable part of the countryside, and got sent packing from the first heat of club fours by a bunch of nineteen year old monomaniac WCS types racing under a provincial club’s flag of convenience; 19 year old monomaniacs who have spent all winter working part time in Costa, training twelve times* per week and being fed and washed by their mums**. 19 year old monomaniacs who have been sent to said regatta for the sole purpose of gain ranking status for Henley and getting the taste blood and tears in their mouths.

*as correctly recommended by British Rowing for any crew wishing to compete at any event more competitive than a Christmas Pudding Scratch race.
**If you feel the burning self righteous social justice-ness of a Momentum member you can of course substitute the Monomaniac WCS types for entitled public school children racing out of their J18 category in a brand new £25k yellow boat, after spending the last four years rowing together five times a week and being fed by a professional chef. And who want to get a taste of  blood and tears in their mouths. My blood. My Tears. The little shits.

The problem with British Club rowing at the moment, particularly in senior level is that it mixes the barely employed monomaniacs with the working stiffs who have to train, earn and care for children all at the same time as trying to learn how to row. No ranking system can accommodate this, even the ELO system which should help by finding a win/loss equilibrium for a rower or a crew will be frequently outpaced by exceptionally good crews who are entering the sport at a high level of ability and improving at a rate that is faster than the ranking system can keep up with. If these crews were some kind of vanishingly small minority within the lower reaches of the sport it would be something that we could all tolerate. However, having seen Novice and Senior 3 doubles at Reading Amateur Regatta stuffed with bulging, late teen quadriceps covered in Leander Pink Lycra I don’t think this is the case. Crews like these, particularly common in the thug boats of the double and the four, do their level best to dominate every category, at every regatta, no matter how small, from March till June, from the Trent to the Devil’s Elbow, and from Docks to the Severn. Leander are not the only ones, there are a dozen or so high performance clubs whose presence at a regatta spell the death of racing for anything but second (at best) until Marlowe and Henley are good and done.

And ELO and PRI can do nothing to stop this because there is a pipeline of these strapping young things who will spend the six months from October to March training to be released upon the world of small regattas the country over. They will thrash their oppo and gain points (PRI, ELO or brownie or whatever) and repeat until the end of June, and the ordinary, time starved rower who trains for four and a half hours a week, not fourteen and a half will go home empty handed.

What is needed is some kind of protection and segregation for the genuine amateurs and enthusiasts who partake in the economy and in child rearing so that they might race against others who face the same time poverty as they do.

Rowers of Great Britain, I propose to you the Gentlemen, Ladies, and Amateurs Rowing Category (GLAm Cat. for short).

The rules are simple

  1. No one in full time education may row in GLAm Cat.. This includes post-graduate degrees.
  2. No one without a full time job may row in GLAm Cat.. To be checked via N.I. number.
  3. No Glam Cat regattas to be longer that 1207m (3/4 of a mile).
  4. Rowers from clubs with WCS annexes may not row in GLAm Cat.. Other clubs, most obviously Leander, Tideway Scummers, and Molsey will be excluded. London RC, Thames RC, Henley BC, and UTRC will be watched very, very closely. Taurus and Tyrian will be shown the respect they deserve.
  5. All participants must select GLAm Cat. Rowing or PRI Rowing at the start of the regatta season, and may not switch before the head race season.
  6. Those that have chosen GLAm Cat. must effectively rule themselves out of the major Dorney and HPP regattas.
  7. All other rankings and rules of racing to be observed.
  8. All racing shall take place in doubles or coxed fours.

Obvious exceptions to this are those in part time employment with dependent children, the retired, and the unwillingly unemployed during, or just prior to the season. In these cases given that checking such details is beyond the scope and reach of British Rowing some form of discretionary system must be put into place, possibly providing open access to the details of the exemption claim for potential competitors to peruse and accept or decline.

I believe the introduction of GLAm Cat. racing will have several positive effects. First and most importantly Rules 1. and 2. will separate the try-hards with careers, kids and commutes from the barely employed, elongated aerobic monsters of the high performance clubs, who are aiming at realistic shots at Henley medals, GB vests and US scholarships. I believe that this will do what an open-to-all ranking system will not achieve, which is provide fairer, and thus closer racing.

Next, by limiting the length of regattas as per Rule 3., it may allow a change in the way the GLAm Cat. rowers could train, gone would be the tedious grind of the 3x6k and in would be the short sharp shock of 3x2k and Volker/Tabata Intervals and the ever terrifying Dr Evil’s Plan of Pain***, and lots of other fun training stuff that does not take very long and from which, decent results can be achieved in a four sessions a week. Again allowing the time starved to compete with each other at a decent level, and stand a chance of winning, without having to sacrifice family and leisure time on the altar of more and more volume.

*** Dr Evil’s full plan can be found here. This text is confused about AN and AT bands in a lot of places I think and I probably need to put up an edited version. It is designed to get rowers to World Champ standard on four training sessions a week. It is brutal and allowances must be made for that. Although when it says “flat out” remember that this was a plan to train pepperami men back in the late 80’s to early 90’s, so “flat out” probably meant ~1’44”.

Rule 4. is an extension of rules 1. & 2. and will prevent the barely employed monomaniacs from picking up a temporary contract (floor sweeping at their club?) and pillaging silverware throughout the GLAm Cat.. It will also act as the equivalent of a draft or a player wage cap in many professional American sports and spread talent (and arguably as talent pays its own way in rowing it will spread cash flow) out of the monolithic Thames clubs and into smaller rowing institutions, when the talent needs to get a job and grow up.

Rules 5. & 6. effectively creates two leagues at the start of Regatta season. April 1st could be held as the date which would mark a clear and obvious start of the summer season after which only cads, bounders and Scotsmen**** race in processional time trials. It could be that rowers might be given the opportunity to change categories after Henley Royal, possibly based on some objective measure of success or failure. Something that could be thought of as a mid season promotion/demotion play off. But it is essential to realize that there would be two leagues of rowing, Open and GLAm Cat. and that Open would be the senior league. GLAm Cat. would be there to allow the “rest” to compete without being thrashed*****.

This will not fix the issue of talent distribution and it will be likely that the taller, stronger and more dedicated rowers who spend more time on the water together will win more races. But it will not pit amateurs against unpaid but full time rowers and the child galley slaves of the public school system.

**** It is winter up there until about June
***** In my darker moments I felt that the best way of enforcing the understanding of different standards of rowing categories was to make winners and medalist in the less senior categories whoop, holler and cheer sycophanticly as the medalist in the more senior categories received their gongs. If they were judged to have not expressed their admiration with enough vigour, then no medals for them. I’ll admit I had only won a silver in open category at that particular Nat Masters, and a lot of my club compatriots had won gold in IM3.

Rule 7. allows the established system of rankings to be applied across both Open and GLAm Cat. without modification. Some kind of scaling factor should probably be applied to boats wishing to move from one category to the other

Rule 8. is different and personal. It is me riffing on another subject I want to write about but haven’t had the time yet. It is the least important and most optional idea. I believe strongly that rowing is driving itself into the ground with the number of different boat types out there. I have rowed at small clubs (often the best sort) that have top end eight’s, £18-20k worth of boat, that spends a goodly proportion of the year on the rack. Singles abound, and stack up in the rafters. Coxes are considered useful from February to March (8’s head training) and then discarded. If small clubs were to dedicate themselves to GLAm Cat. rowing and only have two man and four man boats in their shed’s they could save a small fortune, and provide a way into the sport for small people. And they could have smaller sheds. I understand this is a reflection of my love of the effort of rowing not the speed achieved, and the greatest rowing I have ever done has been in a pair, but I think the economics should be considered.

I recognize that there will be winners and losers if such an idea was implemented, and many would resent the what was a supremely open sport being divided into leagues where some rowers from some clubs, could, or would not compete with one another. Infamous rivalries such as Trafford vs. Agecroft and Furnival Scullers vs. Thames R.C.****** would probably come to an end. There would be a real danger that GLAm Cat. would become a socially snobby, and physically lazy backwater with ever more restrictions placed upon rowers thought to be “too good” or “training too hard”. Would there be stories of athletes being declined club memberships because their physically demanding job let them work in a T-Shirt? There is also a real danger of draining the life out of great, if occasionally overbearing, institutions of the sport if all the non elite members of TSS, Molsey, Thames, London etc. start wondering away down the road to other clubs. But given that the most important thing that was listed as a concern for British Rowing members was the inability to race on a level playing field I maintain that it is essential to allow separation and protection for the true amateurs away from the borderline professional’s, recruited by dedicated talent search programs.

****** Yes these are both rivalries that neither Thames nor Agecroft were actually aware of. But we hated you Thames, we really hated you.

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