Learning from Defeats

BY ALEX STORY

Rowing usually brings the nation good news. Over the last 40 years, even in dark times, such as the 1996 Atlanta Games, when Great Britain ranked 36th behind North Korea, Algeria and Ethiopia, the sport could be counted on to give us moments of intense pride.

We have to go back to the 1980 Olympics to find a failure to win Gold in rowing. The Games that year were held in Moscow. Then much of the West boycotted the games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In short, rowing has long been one of our most successful sports.

At the Tokyo Games, the team’s aim was to win four and rank first on the global ranking tables, a position we have held since 2008. The team failed in these twin objectives: we won no gold and now rank 14th.

Failure on such a scale brings with it recriminations.

Some will blame the athletes, others the coaches.

Much of the responsibility for this ostensible debacle will be laid at the door of “the people in charge”, who oversaw the changing of the management guard at what has been considered an inopportune time.

Since Jürgen Gröbler’s, Great Britain’s erstwhile legendary rowing coach, arrival on our shores after the collapse of the Eastern Block in 1990, 18 gold medals were won.

Not all can be attributed to Gröbler (in photo above).

Indeed, two of Great Britain’s most memorable wins were in fact akin to acts of rebellion against the Teuton’s centralising tendencies:

The first was the “Chariot-of-fire”-style victory in the coxed-pair of Greg and Johnny Searle, coxed by Garry Herbert, whose tears on the podium immortalised the moment; the second was our first win in the Eight, rowing’s “blue ribbon” event, since 1912, at the 2000 Sydney Games.

In both cases, the crews decided to distance themselves physically from Jürgen Gröbler to implement their own vision.

Both crews took a gamble and won. All rejoiced. Their decision was vindicated. On the other hand, had they come in second, they would have been blamed for having had the temerity of thinking differently.

Be that as it may, in the main, Jürgen Gröbler oversaw a complete overhaul of the rowing system during his time in charge.

He transformed a system based on local, not to say parochial, loyalties into a properly functioning national system with incredible depth, backed by impressive financial (for the sport of rowing) resources.

In short, he turned quixotic perennial silver medallists into mechanised gold medal winners. For a generation of rowers, whatever his shortcomings, he was their Oracle.

So why change?

Broadly speaking, it has to do with age and timing. Jürgen Gröbler is 74. He quite rightly decided against committing until 2024.

By then, he would be President Biden’s age and might make just as much sense.

In fact, much of the mystique surrounding Jürgen Gröbler is misplaced in that no-one could ever really be sure they understood what he said. Indeed, what he was given as talent in the coaching field was fairly taken away in the linguistic one.

The only thing you knew as an athlete was that “more power” was always better. And to get “more power”, you had to lift “more weights” and “row more miles”.

Time, however, waits for no one. As legendary athlete Sir Steve Redgrave said: “Not everyone can carry on for ever”.

Just as Manchester United’s performance dropped when Sir Alex Ferguson retired, so the Great British Olympic team’s form dipped when the cornerstone of their success followed suit.

Interestingly, though, we can perhaps read too much into the change. Facts are what they are but interpreting them properly is the wise man’s duty.

First, after the Rio Games, the overwhelming majority of rowers retired. The team had to be rebuilt from the top down and a new crop of talent found. In the end, eight rowing teams ended in the top four; two made the podium. In other words, our young team, in the new set up, is “there or thereabouts” in the words of Mark Davies, Chairman of British Rowing.

Further, the margins of victory in rowing have been exceedingly tight. Across all the seven men’s events, the aggregate difference between Gold and Silver over the last twenty years has been half of one Usain Bolt 100 metre sprint. 

Second, the world of sports was divided between countries which had tough COVID restrictions and others that had none. This led to some unusual results. The New Zealand Eight was not good enough to quality directly for the Olympic Games in 2019; after 18 months of restriction free training, the Kiwis romped home with the gold.

Other rowing super-powers such as Germany, the United States and Canada did poorly. Greece, on the other hand, won her first Olympic Gold since Antiquity. Australia and New Zealand, two countries in which restrictions were either light or non-existent, ended up topping the table.

Restrictions, in team sports, seem to have had an impact. Indeed, when routines are changed, these can have a much greater impact on results than a timely managerial transition. COVID forced these on many nations but not all.

For the rowers themselves though, these games will haunt them for the rest of their lives. There is no worse feeling as an athlete than to miss out so publicly.

Rowers are known in the main for being straightforward, unpretentious and open. They train long hours without fuss. This they do in the hope of glory. Their quest is the podium’s highest step once every four years.

Their greatest pride is to hear our National Anthem echo across the lakes and rivers over which they compete, before fading back into anonymity.

Missing out will mean endless hours of wrestling with a deeply felt sense of humiliation. The feeling of shame for having let down the country will never quite wash away.

When you value your life based on the results of one race, failing feels like the end. As Greg Searle MBE, Britain’s 1992 gold medal winner said, “They will need to know that their character is not defined by the result of one race. Life is more than that.”

However, the cruelty of sports is that the fleeting disappointment of millions is concentrated into the lifeblood of the handful of athletes for whom the final race meant everything. Let us hope, they learn what needs to be learnt for these defeats and come back to win in 2024 for our and their sake.

Alex Story is Head of Business Development at a City broker working with Hedge Funds and other financial institutions. He stood for parliament in 2005, 2010 and 2015.