Alex Chick

The exquisite agony of rowing

Alex Chick

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The GB men's four collapse in joy and exhaustion

Nobody has ever enjoyed a rowing race.

It may seem odd to mention this after a morning of almost unimaginable Olympic glory for Great Britain at Eton Dorney, but it's true.

Think about it.

For rowers, it represents as many minutes of sheer hell as you need to go through to reach the finish.

For spectators, it offers little in the way of aesthetic beauty - just sheer, appalling tension as the boats jockey back and forth for supremacy.

If your team starts slowly, you urge them desperately forwards, shouting obscenities at athletes who are putting more physical effort into one race than you did into your entire sporting 'career'.

If they start strongly, it is even worse. They become the hunted, a moving bulls-eye. All you can do is pray for the finish to arrive as their rivals come back at them.

The last 250m of a rowing race in which a British crew leads must be the longest 50 seconds in the universe. A quantum physician could not explain how the cosmos bends to stretch those final few strokes over hours, weeks, months - a lifetime of agony crammed into a few short moments.

The competitors hate it; the viewers hate it even more.

So - why are we so happy, again?

Of course, it's the end of a rowing race that pays us back. Only once it is over can anyone crack a smile.

This morning, the men's four of Alex Gregory, Pete Reed, Tom James and Andrew Triggs-Hodge, and the women's lightweight scullers Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking made the pain richly worth enduring.

They gave us sheer joy and relief at winning. The sense of achievement (for them, not us). The surreal feeling of dominance as Britain scooped up medal after medal on the water - two golds in 20 minutes!

Seeing the four hold off Australia and the scullers demolish the opposition in the second half of the race was a thrill. One to savour once they were safely over the line.

If the greatest joy in sport is the unexpected victory, the greatest satisfaction comes from the expected victory.

These rowers came in as favourites. They had pressure heaped on them. They led from the front. And they got the job done, securing gold medals that nobody could second guess or pick apart.

The part where you win is easy to understand, but even if the result goes against you, the end of a race brings a certain elation - your fate might not be the one you hoped for, but at least you have some closure. You aren't suffering any more.

This may or may not be the same endorphin-releasing process that makes people run marathons or sit through Grey's Anatomy box sets.

It's that feeling of taking off tight shoes - only if the shoes were concrete boots with spikes on the inside. So great is the pain, the relief cannot fail to make us euphoric.

Just when we were getting used to Britain winning everything, the men's lightweight sculls delivered a kick in the guts - and a reminder that nothing is automatic in sport.

After an abortive start in which Zac Purchase's seat failed, Purchase and Mark Hunter dominated the restart.

At 1500m they led by a second and the Danes were closing. But our defences were down. We had just seen two gold medals, the fear and anxiety had lifted. We knew that British crews did not let leads slip.

Then they did. Purchase and Hunter led for 1,970m - the Danish crew of Quist and Rasmussen led for the 30m that matter.

Even after such a horrible finish there was still a sense of grim relief that the whole thing was over.

Sport possesses a keen hubris detector, and it was damned if it was going to let a triumphant host nation sweep the board.

Still, if being taught a lesson means winning 'only' two golds and a silver, you're probably doing OK.

Once more, an Olympic crowd surpassed itself. 25,000 fans crammed into the stands beside Dorney Lake, and nearly all were in position some two hours before the 'A' finals.

While the minor races took place, the heavens deposited an ungodly monsoon on the open stands while I cowered under cover with the rest of the media. Share the Olympic experience? Not this one, thanks very much.

But the assembled masses simply donned their cagoules and plastic ponchos, they huddled for warmth and they cheered anything that moved - including, at one point, a flock of low-flying geese.

The weather lifted in time for the main events - after the pain, the relief.  The crowd made a simply astonishing noise, and were rewarded with a golden morning of British achievement.

Rowing is hell - but what glorious, exquisite suffering.


ACCESSIBILITY/FACILITIES: 6/10 - Hundreds of shuttle buses ferried crowds in from umpteen locations, but it was still a long walk from the entrance at Windsor Race Course. I overheard one dad telling his daughter: "You know how far we've just walked? Mo Farah has to go five times as far." Once inside the 'stadium' the facilities are very good.

VIEW: 7/10 - The nature of rowing lakes meant spectators only got a good view of the final 10 per cent of the race - but big screens and decent commentary helped. The winning crews rowed to the water's edge to salute the fans, while the medal ceremonies took place across the lake from most fans.

FANS: 10/10 - Amazing. Deafeningly loud - without the benefit of an enclosed arena to amplify the sound. They were indefatigably upbeat during the downpour, and generous with their applause for non-British crews. Still, if you have a session like this, you would expect some noise.

SPECTACLE: 9/10 - Squeezing everyone into the final stages of the course made a fantastic arena. As I said above, the races weren't exactly fun, but they provided unbearable tension followed by explosions of joy. And, of course, two golds and a silver must rank among the most successful mornings' work in British Olympic history.

X-FACTOR: 9/10 - Dorney is a fantastic venue, only hampered by the slight faff getting there from London (though not for me - I happen to live less than two miles away). This morning provided something no venue can guarantee - a feeling of something genuinely historic unfolding.

TOTAL SCORE: 41/50 - historic

Other venues rated
Lord's: 40/50 - ancient and modern
North Greenwich Arena (gymnastics): 39/50 - complex
Aquatics Centre: 38/50 - noisy
Basketball Arena: 36/50 - slick
Lee Valley White Water Centre: 36/50 - thrilling
Horse Guards Parade: 36/50 - raucous
Box Hill (road race cycling): 35/50 - rural
Riverbank Arena: 32/50 - temporary
ExCel (weightlifting): 31/50 - functional

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Alex Chick will be writing from London 2012 throughout the Olympic Games.
Follow @alexchick81

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