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The schisms within British Rowing were unmasked so mercilessly that you could even spot them in the same boat. Take the moment when a bedraggled men’s eight staggered out on to the pontoon at Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway, having claimed the bronze to conclude an Olympic regatta like no other.
Seven of the crew, all making their Games debuts, looked relieved to have secured a medal of any colour. But off to the side was Moe Sbihi, the one man with experience of what it meant to win gold. He was down on his haunches in desolation. Sbihi’s mood was still thunderous as he arrived for his post-race interview.
The subtext to his anguish was self-evident: he had not given up five years of his life to trail home third. For somebody who had savoured the addictive rush of victory with the four in Rio, this was a bitter encore that underlined the feeling that British rowers’ winning mindset had gone horribly astray. “We’re a highly-funded sport within Team GB,” he said. “We should be doing better."
Harsh questions must be asked of a sport that, since 2016, has managed to spend £24.6 million of Lottery funds on the grand total of a silver and a bronze. Rowing has been given more money to create an all-conquering team than even track cycling, the largest single contributor to British gold rushes at recent Games. And yet after leading medal tables in Beijing, London and Rio, they have plummeted to 14th in Tokyo, behind even Ireland and Croatia. This is not some rogue glitch in the matrix, but a full-system fiasco.
Results alone barely convey the depth of dysfunction into which British Rowing has fallen here. Beaten rowers have turned on their predecessors, with Matt Rossiter lambasting past champions in the coxless four, including Telegraph columnist James Cracknell, saying: “Those people will be really smug now. I hope they’re happy we have not continued the gold run.”
As if this were not bracing enough, Josh Bugajski, bowman for the eight, used his moment in the spotlight to make the incendiary accusation that former coach Jurgen Grobler would “destroy the soul” of his athletes, “destroy everything they had”. He spelt out his own ordeal under the East German taskmaster, alleging that for three years his life had been made a misery, that he was driven to the brink of financial ruin, that he only survived thanks to the love of his fiancée.
Bugajski calculated that he would come across as a courageous whistleblower exposing a damaged system. But his comments backfired. Three hours later, his own team-mates were turning against him, with Tom George dismissing him as an opportunistic renegade fortunate to have been selected.
“To sit there and say that Jurgen destroys people is pretty slanderous,” he said. “And from someone Jurgen offered a lifeline in his rowing career.” Oliver Wynne Griffith was not prepared to show any solidarity either, arguing: “Within our crew, he is 100 per cent a lone voice.”
It is an unholy mess. This was the week when British Rowing, not content with merely failing to deliver, tore itself apart. The feuds multiplied so fast that you lost count: between generations, between crews, even between those sharing a boat. At the heart of it all was the complex inheritance bequeathed by Grobler.
The sport’s cardinal error was to dispense, last August, with the one figure whose uncompromising methods sat uneasily with the zeitgeist. Grobler could be a brute of a mentor, driving his athletes so hard at winter altitude camps that their routine was essentially: ergo session, vomit, repeat. But for 30 years, he set standards of accomplishment that no other country could hope to emulate.
Sir Steve Redgrave’s five straight Olympic golds, the four’s unbeaten record at the Games for 21 years. All of it was masterminded by the disciplinarian who would accept no shortcuts. Sbihi, to this day, is one of his devoted admirers, acknowledging: “He is somebody who p----- me off as much as made me really happy. I spoke to him only this week – just to say thank you to him. I feel very grateful for the legacy he has put in place.”
But with just 11 months to an Olympics postponed by the pandemic, British Rowing let Grobler go, and with him went their crews’ reputation for remorseless excellence. The displays at their first Games without Grobler have been nothing short of an embarrassment. The men’s four came fourth after Ollie Cook began steering in the closing stages like Freddie Flintoff on a night-time pedalo. The eight, Grobler’s other pride and joy, went from Rio gold to losing to New Zealand and Germany.
This is the first occasion the rowers have gone gold-less since Moscow 1980. In terms of overall medals, it is their worst return for 45 years.
Even at the top of Team GB, though, a language of denial persists. Andy Anson, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, simply shrugged off rowing’s failures. “We shouldn’t worry about it. They may not be at their absolute best at these Games, but they’re heading towards Paris,” he insisted.
Since when have the Olympics, the most august platform in all sport, been treated as a mere staging post to the next time? For 70 per cent of the 11,000 athletes in Tokyo, there are no second chances. For rowers especially, the Games are all that matter, the only truly international showcase to which they can aspire. Not some halfway house to a distant future where they might not play any part. Even for the best, the road runs out far sooner than they would like.
Sbihi, drowning in dejection, was asked whether he would still be around to chase gold at Paris 2024. Knowing he could give no such assurance, he turned away in tears.
For Anson just to dismiss these realities, to pretend that we can ignore a delayed Tokyo 2020 and that everything will come good in Paris, suggests an obliviousness to the vagaries of elite sport.
“They’re trying to change the culture of that sport,” he said of the rowers’ travails, in a BBC interview. “It has been one way of doing things, quite a hardcore culture, and they’re trying to transition to something where athletes get more support, where the environment is more supportive. That takes time.”
It is a dreaded word in the modern sporting lexicon: culture. It was this same obsession, you will recall, that did for Stuart Lancaster’s time in charge of the England rugby team. He would talk proudly of bringing in military veterans to give dressing-room speeches, and yet none of it amounted to much when they were bundled out in the pool phase of their own World Cup. British Rowing, you sense, have succumbed to the same delusion that cultural change is the answer.
The inconvenient truth, in a sport as extreme as this, is that autocracy tends to work better than bland consensus. Grobler formed a formidable double act with Sir David Tanner, the performance director also known for stern authority from his background as headmaster at a Feltham comprehensive.
Tanner’s successor today is Brendan Purcell, an amiable Australian who seemed lost for words in the aftermath of this abject Olympic showing. He spoke for 20 minutes but the answers were peppered with such managerial phrasings as “robust process” and “programme in transition”.
Purcell knew that a harsh reckoning awaited. “If you look purely at medals, we had a four-medal target,” he said. “We didn’t meet our own expectations. We can’t hide from that.” More worryingly, he also appeared convinced that a catalogue of Tokyo near-misses, with six fourth-place finishes in eight finals, signified some badge of honour. “Have we seriously underperformed? No, we put boats in the medal zone. That’s all we can control.”
He has promised to appoint Peter Keen, previously the performance chief at UK Sport, to lead the investigations into what went wrong. But the problems exposed here can only be solved with brutal honesty.
While a “medals and more” philosophy is upheld by Team GB these days, in an understandable attempt to distance themselves from the bullying scandals that have blighted several Olympic sports, the cultural shift has run aground in rowing. There is an impression that one of the nation’s most decorated sporting machines has developed a soft centre.
In every sense, British Rowing are reaping what they have sown.
How is UK Sport's funding decided and will rowing suffer a further cut in finances?
By Tom Morgan
How much money does rowing get?
Rowing got £24,655,408 funding over five years from UK Sport, marginally more than any other British specialism was granted in Tokyo.
However, a return of just two medals – a silver and a bronze – could prompt even more than the £2million cut for the next Olympic cycle.
UK Sport chief Sally Munday has urged perspective – but has said, like all sports, the performance would be reviewed. “I totally understand why people would ask the question about the two medals, but I think we need to put this into perspective of the bigger picture for rowing,” she told the PA news agency.
“They made eight finals, which is more than any other nation, and had six fourth-place finishes, and they have got probably the youngest and least experienced squad that they have had in the last 20 years. And I think you need to put all of that in context.
“Clearly they (British Rowing) will be disappointed with coming away with just two medals, but there are some other real positives that have come out which I think bode very, very well for Paris. We will do a review with every sport, that happens after every Games. They will be looking at what do we need to change, what do we need to do differently going forwards, and we will support rowing in doing that post-Games assessment.”
How does current funding compare with previous Games and others?
Since the advent of National Lottery support, the British rowing medal count had surged prior to these Games. Rowers were handed £9.6m for Sydney, £10.6m for Athens, £26m for Beijing, £27.3 for London and £32.6m for Rio.
However, Tokyo funding, in an apparent sign that UK Sport had expected a dip in medal contenders, dropped.
Rowing remains the best-funded British sport at the Olympics – a shade above cycling, also on £24.6m and athletics, which received a total £23m.
The others include: Badminton, £946k; boxing, £12m; canoeing, £16.3m; diving, £7.2m, equestrian, £12.5m. gymnastics, £13.4m; hockey, £12.5m; judo, £6.6m, karate, £630K; modern pentathlon, £5.5m; sailing, £22.2m; and shooting, £6m; climbing, £678K, swimming, £18.7m; taekwondo, £8.2m; and triathlon, £7m.
Who decides and will they now lose money ahead of Paris?
Last December, rowing and other so-called “posh” sports had their funding reduced ahead of 2024 as part of attempts to create medal-winners more reflective of modern Britain.
However, the main factor remains likely medals – and GB Rowing is still earmarked to receive a sizeable £22million through to Paris.
Inner-city activities such as basketball and skateboarding are to receive funding for the first time, while some of the most successful sports will receive cuts. Rowing, sailing, swimming, athletics and modern pentathlon have all lost about £1m or more. Canoeing was slashed by £4.4m, more than 25 per cent of its funding for Tokyo.
Munday said then that a new funding model was in part motivated by a priority “to have teams at the Olympics and Paralympic Games that represent our society”.
“I think that what’s important is that any youngster can see themselves somewhere in our team,” she said. “And part of that is about where they live, what they’ve come from and the experiences they’ve had. It’s also about wider demographics and we are committed over the course of the next four to 12 years to make sure that we get to a place where [our teams] reflect the whole of our society.”