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British Club Rowing is dying. Can we stop the rot?

A guest post by Richard Philips, London Rowing Club. Photo credit: Whilst sitting in the sun on … read more

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A guest post by Richard Philips, London Rowing Club. Photo credit:

Whilst sitting in the sun on a training camp I have put together some thoughts about the state of the sport that, for better or worse, has become part of my life. They are my personal thoughts and do not reflect any official point of view.

A look at the British Rowing web site would have you believe that all is well on our rivers and lakes. There are, however some serious problems that could, unless addressed, lead to the death of the traditional amateur sport.

International British Rowing

I suppose the one should start at the top. Great Britain’s rowing team has won medals at the last 11 Olympic Games and is now the envy of the rest of the world. The professional set up, talent ID schemes, training venues, coaches and other support staff swallow a budget that many other countries can only dream of.

  • Does this money come from within the sport? No.
  • Does a significant sponsor make it possible? No.

The sport at this level is almost entirely dependent on government funding, via agencies such as Sport England and the lottery. It should be remembered that back in the 1970s we complained bitterly how unfair it was that we had to compete against state sponsored athletes from East Germany and the Soviet Union.

What if, as an election promise, one or more of the political parties were to suggest that they would divert some or all of the money currently spent on elite sport to other worthy causes such as social care?

The Conservative party under John Major introduced the National Lottery Scheme partly as a consequence of Team GB’s lowly performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. (1G; 8S; 6B). Buying success at the Olympics is a vanity project that, once every four years, makes us look and feel good. The Olympic effect of attracting more of the population into a healthier lifestyle has not been proven.

Growing Participation

To be eligible for the money British Rowing gets, it does have to tick some boxes. Results at the top end are obviously part of the equation. Attracting and encouraging juniors and other designated groups into the sport is also a key element for securing the funding. British Rowing has, by laying claim to any activity that can be associated with the traditional sport, shown increased participation levels. Gig Rowing, Indoor Rowing (Ergos) Ocean Racing etc. are now all activities that appear in the almanac. The inclusion of all these branches of rowing hides the reducing numbers in the original core group of the sport.

It is worth observing that, for a number of reasons, the entry for the eights head of the river race in 2017 was significantly less than the entry ten years ago. There was a time when the event was limited to 420 crews and there had to be a cull of entries to get them down to that level. This year the entry was about 363 which represents a 20-25%  drop in entry numbers.

Club rowing suffers

The state funding is now having a negative effect on the layer of the sport that is not part of the national team and not tied to a funded high performance or talent ID centre. I am looking at the 30 – 50 or so clubs that make up the Club and Student events at Henley Royal Regatta. The athletes at these clubs have, for most part, to combine a full time job or studies with their rowing training. It is likely that they will have to pay a significant amount of money to train and they will have to find the time for any trips such as training camps.

The talent ID pathway and the High Performance centres are able to subsidise athletes to a point where ordinary club athletes cannot compete with them. There are two knock on effects of this

  1. Firstly large numbers of experienced “club” rowers, who are not identified as future Olympians, get to a point where they decide that they have reached a glass ceiling and, without becoming a full-time athlete, there is no future for them in the sport and they give up and leave.
  2. Secondly, few of those who are lucky enough to be identified and nurtured, as a future Olympian, ever see the inside of an ordinary boat club that relies on its own members and efforts for funding. With the opening of Caversham, they are tucked away in their own little bubble with little or no contact with the world outside. Occasionally they might be allowed out to row for their club in one of the Head of the River races, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Ordinary club athletes no longer get the opportunity to train alongside and gain experience from international athletes. When these internationals retire, the chances are that they too will walk away from the sport.

Beginner Rowing

Away from the International level of events, at the opposite end of the sport British Rowing is making great efforts to attract beginners. Clubs are offered incentives to run “learn to row” courses and other taster type packages. To give credit where credit is due, these programs look like being highly successful. However, the system breaks down once the basic few weeks in big wide stable recreational boats are over.  The first issue is that there is now a whole world of difference between recreational rowing “messing around in boats” and wishing to compete. It is difficult to explain to an adult novice, who has just completed a six week taster course, that many of the “Masters Crews” of the same age will have decades of experience under their belts and that they will need more than a few weeks to reach the same standard, if they ever can.

A few learn to row graduates are of an age and ability where they might have a future in competitive rowing. They will however soon realise that they are up against those who have rowed since the age of fourteen. Whilst physiologically they could be on a par with oarsmen of the same age, no amount of training and coaching can replace the ingrained technical advantage that those who learnt at a young age will have. A look at the results of the qualifying races at Henley for the Temple shows that several of the big schools can produce a second eight that is significantly faster than quite a few University and college crews.

Competition Rules changes

Under the old competition rules, which are now being phased out, there was a protected “Novice” Status. This category allowed beginners to compete in an environment where they would not meet highly experienced juniors and masters. So far as I understand, this status is now done away with. Thus a rower, who learnt in the autumn and competed in a head race in the spring, would now have Ranking points that might not fully reflect his or her true racing experience. Some regattas might offer a Beginner status, but it is far from clear how this is to be applied.

Many who take up the sport stay in the bottom 75% of the old statuses because they do not have the time, or inclination to progress. To move out of the old Novice/IM3/4 level required a level of commitment, ability and resources that they do not have. There is a log jam at the bottom because the standards and requirements further up the ladder have gone  up and, some would argue, are now above and beyond the reach of the traditional club athlete. This is another reason why we lose too many people from the sport. They like to be competitive in a sport that does not take over their life.

The new ranking system does not address the “big fish/little pond” issue, where an athlete from the remote regions picks up points/ranking above and beyond their real ability. Neither the old status system nor the new ranking index does anything to “value” wins. Should a win, in elite pairs with 4 entries over 2000m at a regatta at Eton Dorney have the same weighting as win with four entries IM1 at a Sprint regatta in the late summer? Now that head races are to count to the ranking index, should a national/international event such as the Eight’s Head of the River carry the same weighting as a local event.    Over the years, proposals have been put forward to rank regattas and or particular events but nothing has ever become of it because regattas tend to have a NIMBY approach to change.

Whilst Henley Royal Regatta is not a British Rowing event and British Rowing has little or no influence on the decisions that the Stewards take, they have recognised and accepted that winners of events at Henley have reached a standard, where their points under the old system were topped up to 12 for the elite events; 10 for the intermediate events and 9 for Club events. At Henley Women’s Regatta, the tariff was set lower with elite events only attracting 9 points. It can therefore be argued that a precedent has already been set and, to misquote George Orwell,“All wins are equal but some are more equal than others”.How this is to be related to the new Ranking index system has not been made clear.

Domestic competitions

University crews have a championship event BUCS, Juniors have both the National Schools Regatta and a Junior National championships.  The Masters have their own championships. Senior Club athletes have no such event during the main season. The Senior British Championships in October is an attempt to create an event for senior club athletes, at a time that allows the international level athletes to also compete. The event does not offer the full range of boat classes and the typical senior club athlete will find that they are outclassed by the full time funded athletes from the High Performance clubs and Talent ID schemes. Most club and university training/rowing programmes kick off their season in September, so an event in October is far too early in the year to be taken too seriously. I suspect that if it was not for the team management at GB rowing imposing a three line whip on FISU, U23 and Worlds team candidates entering, few would bother and the event would wither and die.

In the introduction to the competition review report, that is available on British Rowing’s web site, they state that Of the 26,000 British Rowing registered oarsmen and women who raced in 2014, 85% of Women and 71% of men  had fewer than two sweep rowing points and that 90% of both had less than two sculling points. The new system still separates sweep and sculling and gives athletes a Ranking Index for each discipline. Whilst this may be reasonable for the large majority of competitors, who under the old system had less than two points, it is unrealistic at the other end of the scale.

Most successful sweep athletes will, as part of their training, spend time sculling. They may not compete in external heads and regattas, thus picking up ranking points but, by no stretch of the imagination, can they be described as Novice.  I can remember, many years ago, taking a group of oarsmen, all of whom had competed in a Henley Final that year to a late summer regatta weekend and entering and winning almost every sculling event from Novice to Elite. Whilst within the rules, it was perhaps not quite within the spirit of the events. It does however illustrate the need to tie sweep and sculling ranking indexes so as to ensure that the index is a true reflection of an athlete’s ranking in both disciplines.

British Student Rowing

Each year, less than 864 oarsmen and coxes compete in the club and student events at Henley Royal Regatta. If one includes those who do not qualify, the total entering is probably in the order of 1,000 – 1,200. This represents a very small percentage of those who compete in the sport. However this minority are vital to the sport and matter for a number of reasons.

Within the UK only the Oxford and Cambridge Boat races and Henley Royal regatta get any significant media coverage and  even these events get a fraction of the coverage that they used to. Gone are the days when all the broadsheet papers had a Rowing Correspondent.  Henley is therefore, for the moment, the shop front of British Rowing. If you are a potential sponsor, there has to be some kind of payback for the money you might invest in the sport. Henley Royal Regatta would not be the event that it is, if it were not for the clubs and athletes who enter. I doubt the stewards would be very pleased if the standard of the Thames Cup crews dropped to the equivalent of the old IM1 standard. They want to have 32 of the best possible club crews competing and showcasing our sport. So the Oarsmen with more than two points under the old system matter.

Lack of Volunteers

Last year, there was report in the press that the Boy Scout movement in the UK had a waiting list of over 35,000 due to a lack of volunteers. Rowing has a similar issue. Without the club officials, coaches, regatta umpires and other volunteers we will not have a sustainable sport. To run a club, be a coach or umpire requires a degree of experience of the sport at all levels. Therefore long term members matter. Many of the coaches in the successful clubs came from the group that had a long active rowing career. By providing incentives to stay in the sport it can be possible to build up a sound base of volunteers. One has to accept that the pressures of work, families and other commitments often take athletes away from the sport. However we to need to ensure that we are not driving people away before they reach their sell by date.

Whilst one welcomes the competition review, I am not sure that it has truly addressed some of the long term problems and issues facing our sport.

About Rebecca Caroe
Rebecca is the host of RowingChat podcast and is a masters athlete and coach. Passionate about helping others enjoy the sport as much as she does. View all posts from Rebecca Caroe

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