Backsplash – is rowing still an elite sport?
This weekend the Rowing History Conference, Backsplash, took place at the River & Rowing Museum (RRM) in Henley. The event held over two days saw 90 delegates listen to presentations from a range of speakers including Mike Spracklen, Andrew Triggs Hodge OBE, Peter Mallory and Colleen Orsmond. A full report of the event will be published by RRM including video highlights. However, during a panel discussion in the afternoon, the question was asked:-
Does the panel think that elitism in rowing now is about performance streamlining rather than class as it was for The Boys in the Boat? Does the panel think that some like Joe Rantz would make it in a boat today or that he would want to?
Mike Spracklen is one of the most successful and experienced coaches in the world having coached various nation teams to international success between 1976 and 2015.
When I first started rowing if somebody mentioned rowing we would think of it as the boat race, then Henley Royal Regatta and they thought of it as an elitist sport. It certainly was a white collar, blue collar sport in my day. And to be a member of Leander was as out of reach for me as it was for a blue collar person. But the sport has changed over the years, people have become more equal and there is just as much chance as anyone for reaching any height. Steve Redgrave, like myself from the bottom and he rowed at a much higher level than I did. The fact he holds lots of high-level positions now demonstrates that the sport presents equal opportunities for everyone.
Mike Spracklen – international rowing coach
Peter Mallory is an American rowing historian and scholar with numerous titles under his belt including the four-volume “The Sport of Rowing” and “Optimal Force Application in Rowing, the Analysis of Force Graphs and Force Graph Biofeedback”.
In the United States rowing is a sport that began in New England schools and Ivy League colleges. With Title 9, legislation that requires equality between the sexes, we now have wonderful opportunities for women’s rowing and for young women to earn scholarships to great colleges, not just Harvard and Princeton, but also places like Ohio State University and University of Oklahoma. It has become much more class-neutral. What you have is a whole lot of parents with 6ft tall girls that don’t want them to play volleyball but want them to row so they can get a scholarship to the likes of the University of North Carolina.
Peter Mallory – historian & author
Now they are still working, as all rowers are, to get better but there is no sense of class. There is a great deal of effort in a lot of cities in the US, on both coasts and throughout to involve minorities and some of them have bed extremely successful. It requires study habits, language skills and all sorts of academic support because a lot of young kids don’t have what is required. To succeed in this sport of rowing means doing well in high school, it means going to college – it’s a great thing. It also means swimming for African-Americans, it’s just not part of their culture – to learn the skill of swimming. We’ve always been less class-consciousness that Great Britain but I think class is entirely out of it now.
Colleen Orsmond rowed for South Africa in two Olympics. She was the rowing event manager at the Rio Olympics and is now working as sport director at World Rowing.
What I found in Brazil is that rowing is not seen as an elitist sport which was interesting because I think that in Anglo Saxon countries, it is. It’s university-based historically at least so it was an interesting perspective that in Brazil a rowing club was not seen as a place only for the upper-middle class but it was really somewhere a lot of the more community-based students would go to row. Rowing clubs are a haven for those athletes.
Colleen Orsmond – Sport Director, World Rowing
The second part of the question, if people would want to row. That’s an important question and regardless or not whether it’s possible or whether it’s elitist we have to make it attractive for people to row. We have a lot of competition these days from different sports – sports that are perhaps, in our world of immediate gratification, a lot easier to play. You can go straight out and play ball whereas rowing is a sport that requires work, dedication, time and effort. Our challenge is to make people want to row.
Full coverage of Backsplash will be found on the River and Rowing Museum website.