Sir David Tanner talks to RowGlobal on diversity, trials, sponsorship and the Rio Olympics

Thanks for taking the time out to chat to me. First of all, what are your thoughts immediately following the European announcement?

I’m really pleased that we’ve put our crews together. It’s been a long winter, but a good one. With literally four months to go until the opening ceremony in Rio, it’s good to begin final preparations.

The men’s sweep squad looks as good as it’s ever been, with Olympic champions in both the eight and four. Would it be fair to say these are as closely ranked first and second boats as there has ever been?

You could say that. We don’t have Redgrave or Pinsent on the line, and they’d no doubt say their time was pretty wonderful too. Bearing in mind we won the men’s eight and four in Sydney, it’s difficult to make predictions before Rio. We did the same in 2014 too, but I would say that the depth in our squad is exceptional. It’s now up to the rowers to make the best of their potential.

How disappointing is it to not have qualified a women’s quad directly, despite having a good pool of athletes to select from?

Given our history in that event going back to 2008 and before, it certainly was disappointing. We have to be realistic sometimes though; we haven’t got quite as strong a sculling stream on the women’s side as we have had previously. We’ve probably got a better sweep contingent, so it’s a little imbalanced. What we do have in the quad now is two very talented young scullers. They [Leyden and Nixon] both medalled at junior level in the single, whilst Stiller actually won a silver at the U23’s in Brandenburg a few years ago. I would like to have qualified them, but we actually qualified 12 boats for the Olympics which was more than any other nation, so it’s not a simple matter.

Great Britain is obviously the most financially supported rowing nation on the planet, yet it still does not have a major sponsor. What work is being done to secure this?

I’ll be plain – it has been very frustrating to have gone three years without a sponsor. We do have support from a variety of other organisations, like SAS, Science in Sport, Berkshire Hospital, Deloitte and Guide Dogs for the Blind. That’s very important, but we are still missing the big level cash and support that we had with Siemens and Camelot. As far as British Rowing is concerned, it’s been a bit slow in happening but we do now have a director of partnerships appointed whose remit includes getting a major sponsor on-board.

I can only be optimistic that we now have a clear strategy and we must take advantage of Olympic year to showcase our athletes. We are the best supported Olympic and Paralympic rowing nation across the world, although I suspect some countries may have finances which are a bit more hidden.

Looking slightly further afield, there is talk that rowing may struggle to maintain its Olympic status. Do you feel that the largely similar demographic, i.e. white, westernised, that dominates top level rowing is damaging the sport?

Having been in the sport for a very long time, I think we need to work very hard on bringing more universality into the sport. In 1996, we introduced lightweight racing as it seemed a more attractive prospect to African and Asian countries. That’s definitely had a very positive impact for FISA – there are 148 nations registered with the organisation now, which is a huge increase over 20 years.

I don’t feel that we’re actually under threat to remain in the games – we’re certainly in there for Tokyo anyway. I was a delegate at a conference around a month ago where the IOC’s head of sport was speaking. He wasn’t giving any guarantees but none of us had the impression rowing was under significant threat.

If you drill down into the Olympic sports, there’s a huge diversity. Tokyo is planning on bringing in baseball; I’ve no problem with that and it’s what the IOC want, but it is hardly a particularly universal sport. Every sport has its drawbacks.

In terms of diversity, the South African lightweight four winning gold was a huge step forward. That’s been coming for a while, and I believe there are arguments to be had that rowing is progressing. We must not forget the principles of the sport; crew racing, endurance, diversity and, above all, excellence. That’s what the Olympic Games is all about.

One of the things I’m sure rowing will do though is become gender equal before Tokyo. Undoubtedly, we’ve needed a bit of a shove to do that, but it’s now a huge priority.

I hear what you’re saying but FISA are planning on scrapping the lightweight four. Additionally, one gold medal at one Olympic Games from one African crew doesn’t really constitute diversity.

I’m not saying we’re perfect. Within GB, we would like to be more ethnically diverse. I don’t want to hold Mo Sbihi up more than I should.

There are only fourteen medal events within the Olympic rowing program and there was an event won by a South African crew, and it was the lightweight four. I believe the proposals to scrap the light four is more to do with gender mix in truth anyway.

I’m a glass half full person – you can say we’re under threat, or you can say we need to make some changes. Transitions within sport take time. To build an Olympic gold medal-winning program is not done overnight, and I think we need to recognise that. There are obviously sports which are easier to access too, especially for young people – I won’t name any names, but rowing isn’t one of them.

If we look at the development of U23 athletes, it could be said there has been a bit of a tail-off since the last Olympics. Do you agree with that?

I admit there are some gaps. We have an older team than we’ve probably had before, so in that sense we’ve got fewer youngsters joining the program than before. Some of our athletes have joined the sport later – more people are learning to row as adults. Take Helen Glover, Paul Bennett, Matt Gotrel for example. The funding we have also allows our athletes to row on into their late thirties.

If you look at our U23 results last year, we had all of the team in the top five bar the men’s quad who dropped out at the semi stage through injury. We had more women medalling than before and won six podium places across the board.

Within the U23 squads, one of our biggest challenges is men’s sweep. That is partly born out of the decisions of British juniors to study in the USA. That’s an issue for us and I’m open about that. We don’t close the door on those athletes – we had two guys in the men’s four in 2015 who studied abroad. I’d like some more youngsters to come, but I believe we’re in a reasonable state.

What we need is more ‘gold-dust’ coming to us – people who can win at the highest level. We have some in our squad now, but we need to see more coming through from our ‘GB Start’ program. I’m not negative about that, because we’ve had some good input from those schemes, but there perhaps needs to be more of a drive.

Do you believe more could be done by UK universities to encourage athletes to stay and study in the UK?

We are strongly encouraging our university clubs to recruit. Places like Brookes, Newcastle, Durham, and Edinburgh have done quite well this year, but can definitely do more to market themselves. The challenge is that most youngsters are making decisions before they’ve represented their country, with their parents. It’s difficult to envisage your personal development at that age.

Additionally, US universities are throwing money and persuasion at their systems that we couldn’t possibly match. An Ivy League place is attractive, I can’t argue with that. That’s why we haven’t put the draw bridge up – if you go off and study elsewhere in New Zealand, they just won’t look at you. I’ve stuck my colours to the mast on this one – not everyone agrees with me, but we shouldn’t cut our noses off to spite our face.

When we spoke back at trials, GB Rowing did not want to be a part of the all-inclusive ‘first past the post’ system. However, a large scale broadcast event may up viewing figures for the sport and potentially attract more sponsorship?

I think that there are two ways to look at this. As performance director, the first is how we best form our team. The system we had here in Caversham was what the coaches and I believed to be the best technical way to assess our athletes. Providing we could move that to make it an ‘event’ for the public, there is no problem with me theoretically. If we had spectators and increased media interest, it’d be fantastic! I would say that we are looking to improve the latter throughout the four years, not just in Olympic season. Secondly, we’d need to be in a venue where we could function properly and fairly. The only viable alternative to Caversham is Holme Pierre Point in Nottingham – Dorney Lake have refused to host any events outside of school holidays since 2013, which is extremely frustrating for us. That is also the reason we haven’t been able to bring another world cup to that venue.

I’ve been around long enough to not be purist about it, and I need to be the one to say that it is or isn’t going to work. Our trials are not the same as swimming or athletics, as we use them to rank as opposed to select.

Tom Morgan

Previous editor of Row360, publisher of Junior Rowing News, freelance writer for the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post, Vital Football and others. Student at the University of Southampton.

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