International rowing is dominated by two superpowers – Great Britain and New Zealand. The Aussies, Germans and Americans may argue but the numbers speak for themselves. At the London Olympics in 2012, these two nations finished first and second in the medal tables whilst at the 2014 and 2015 World Championships they again filled the top two spots. Looking ahead to Rio it is quite possible that 11 of the 14 Olympic rowing events could be won by either GB or New Zealand, and they could well medal in all 14 (for the record, the three events I don’t think will be won by the ‘Superpowers’ are the M2X [Croatia] the W4X [Germany] and the W8 [The USA].
As a fervent supporter of Great Britain, and a great admirer of the New Zealand rowing team, I personally hope this prediction comes true! However, there’s a niggly little voice at the back of my head that says that this is great for GB and New Zealand, but is it good for the sport – especially at the Olympics?
Back in the “good (bad) ol’ days of the 70’s and early 80’s it was the East Germans and Soviets who monopolised the medals. East Germany finished top of the Olympic Rowing medal table at every Olympics between 1968 and 1988 (except LA in ’84 which they boycotted). We now know that most of that success was because of doping; the East Germans (and most likely the Soviets) ran a highly sophisticated state sponsored drug programme.
“Is it good for the sport – especially at the Olympics?”
Now, in the past few years, we’ve seen the emergence of two more dominant nations whose success can be attributed to a different form of ‘doping’ – financial. The GB and NZ rowing teams are some of the best funded federations of any Olympic sport and certainly the best funded rowing programmes in the world. For GB, that funding is £32.6 million for the Rio Olympiad; for New Zealand it’s in the region of NZ$5m per year. Very few other programmes come close. If I wanted to be provocative, I would say that the funding provided to the likes of Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, Moe Sbihi and Helen Glover gives them more of an advantage than performance-enhancing drugs do for a ‘part-time’ or low-funded athlete.
What this funding does is create an environment where large squads of full-time athletes can train and compete. Other nations have outstanding crews – the Croatian men’s double, the US women’s eight, the Danish lightweight men’s four – but what they don’t have is the strength in depth that GB and New Zealand have. A strength that has been developed over a number of years and millions of £ & $. New Zealand stated they wanted to qualify a crew for all 14 events and GB will probably qualify in 13 (the W1X looks doubtful). No other nation will come close to that level of competitiveness and, as mentioned above, these crews are not ‘make-weights’; every single one of their boats has a strong chance of being on the podium.
All the Olympic sports are under intense scrutiny to remain relevant and fit within Thomas Bach’s Olympic 2020 agenda. Some sports, like wrestling, have already felt the heat and suffered the ignominy of being dropped (and then reinstated) to the Olympic programme. Any sport that appears to be consistently dominated by one or two nations may start to have questions asked about its universality.
What could this mean for rowing? As a sport we are already under scrutiny for the number of athletes, the number of events and the gender split. Rowing is seen as a very ‘fat’ programme. If I were guilty of paranoia I’d say that the IOC would be looking for any excuse to trim and tweak the rowing programme, and a lack of spread among the gold medal winners could be just what they are looking for.
“All the Olympic sports are under intense scrutiny to remain relevant”
So what would this tweaking look like? There are lots of potential options that they could look at. The most radical is along the lines of the rowing programme at the Youth Olympic Games; reducing the program to just men’s and women’s singles and pairs. That would be the worst case scenario, other than being dropped altogether. Alternatively, they could go with the set-up run at the Youth Olympic Festival. Each team has a maximum of 18 athletes (nine male and nine female) and race in the single, quads, pairs, coxless four, eight and light double. Whilst this will significantly reduce the number of athletes, it would probably mean that the best funded teams win the medals – GB and New Zealand again. Another approach they could take is to continue with the 14 events, but either restrict the number of athletes in each team, or restrict the number of events that each nation can enter. This, by its very nature, would mean that the gold medals would be spread wider. Perhaps go with the 18 athlete per nation (allowing for doubling up, or being selective in which events they enter). Or, restrict entries to, say, seven events per nation.
Personally, I think any of these approaches would effectively neuter the sport. But, if the alternative is that the sport gets dropped from the Olympics, then we might be forced to accept whichever is the lesser of the ‘evils’. If I had to choose, I’d go for restricting the number of events each nation can enter.
Hopefully this is all just theoretical, but knowing the scrutiny every Olympic sport is under, the rowing world has to show that it is agile and responsive. So, heading into the Rio Olympics, my heart says I want Great Britain to win as many medals as possible, but a little part of my head says that, for the sake of the sport, I hope the medals are spread a little wider.
Photo credit Anthony Benoit