Given its population size and easy access to water, India is far from the power house of rowing that it could be – but they are trying to make an impact in the sport in other ways.
It is clear to them, perhaps due to the range of abilities, that shorter distance rowing makes for more entertaining viewing. The Indian Rowing Federation has also cottoned on to the fact that shorter distance racing as an index of rowing has less barriers to entry. Across India, not every lake or river has sufficient distance to train for two kilometre racing. During the summer months the temperatures can soar to well over 40 degrees, making it impossible to partake in endurance training.
You enter the Indian National Championships via a scrap yard; a far-cry from the decadence of Henley Royal Regatta. The 34th edition of this event took place at the beautiful, if slightly polluted, Hussain Sager Lake; the imposing statue of a Buddha that greets you upon arrival is like India’s answer to Christ the Redeemer. On this old semi-manmade reservoir, during the last week of January, the championships host all the Indian state teams for a four lane based regatta. The week long competition starts with two kilometre racing to honour the traditional distance, but switches up to 500m sprints for the final few days. As a spectator, you can see from start to finish and generally even the largest winning margins still resemble a close race.
Another innovation, or product of circumstances, is the standardisation of equipment. Everyone uses boats provided by the Federation, with the same brand and rig, which the athletes rotate through as they progress in the regatta. No more late night trailer loading, no more boat rigging and no more disputes over competitors racing a brand new Empacher against a 25 year old Burgashell – just a level playing field. In terms of reducing the environmental impact of our sport, trailering all these large pieces of equipment does not make sense. However, we do it without thinking in the UK. If one boat manufacturer or supplier took a fleet of boats for everyone to use, it would further minimise the environmental impact of what is generally considered a green sport.
In typically Indian innovative style, everything is homemade or upcycled; from grandstands to branding, right down to using protein tubs and inflatable footballs as lane buoys. Having met a member of the Indian Federation technical team on my way back to the airport, his enthusiasm in telling me how he had wired and programed the starting systems was fantastic. He was eager to seek my approval and wanted to know how it matched up to the FISA standard. Being diplomatic as always, I said it was better.
So what next for the future? My experience of an Indian Nationals was of close racing and great food (Biryani is the local speciality), whilst the event maintained an Indian spice that placed a cultural twist on a familiar scene. Be it the Indian summer style lighting round the lake, the hypnotic and relaxing music or the trucks, Tuk-tuks and rocks along the regatta course, the event was unique throughout. My advice to them was simple – embrace more of your own culture, more of that Indian colourfulness and don’t try and water down the experience to make it fit with how rowing is done elsewhere!