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British Rowing descended into bitter infighting on Wednesday after James Cracknell hit back at a claim that he and other Olympic champions would be “smug” about the men’s fours failure to claim a gold medal.
The accusation came from Matt Rossiter, who – alongside Oliver Cook, Rory Gibbs and Sholto Carnegie – could not win Britain’s sixth consecutive Olympic title in the event, one of rowing’s blue riband races.
Britain had won every men’s fours since 2000, when Sir Steve Redgrave helped secure victory in Sydney, but that run ended on Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway. Instead, their race ended in chaos, as Britain’s steering went awry in the final 500 metres to drop them out of the medals.
They only narrowly avoided crashing into the Italians in the adjacent lane as they attempted to hunt down the leaders, Australia. But it was Rossiter’s remarkable post-race comments that ignited long-simmering tensions around the national rowing camp, as the 31-year-old rounded on the four’s critics, accusing them of not wanting the team to succeed.
He is understood to have been referring chiefly to Cracknell, twice Olympic champion in the four and a Telegraph Sport columnist, whose perceived criticisms of the crew he has called out before. “It’s just disappointing that those people will be really smug now that they are part of the legacy that won,” Rossiter said.
“That was a motivation to do well. I hope those people are happy we have not continued the gold run.”
Cracknell emphatically denied those claims, saying: “That is rubbish. If that was true, that would have been my sentiments in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and none of the athletes in those boats would have said that about me.
“The idea that I would be concerned about protecting my ‘legacy’ 17 years after I last raced at an Olympics is nonsense. I would be a pretty bitter person if, almost two decades after last competing, I didn’t want the British boat to win.
“I understand the sense of disappointment there must be in the British boat given they were one of the favourites and finished fourth. I was gutted for the guys that their race ended that way, but I have always abided by the principle that anything I say on commentary, I would be happy to say to that person’s face, and that is true for Matt in this instance.”
There was incredulity among Cracknell and other former gold medallists at the late steering malfunction, an almost unheard-of event in fours racing at this level. Speaking on commentary for the BBC at the time, Cracknell was unsparing in his verdict, saying: “Someone in the British crew blew up. The only way your steering goes like that is when somebody totally runs out of juice.”
A key reason for the antagonism between men’s fours past and present concerns the departure last year of Jurgen Grobler, who had mentored British crews to record-breaking success throughout his three decades in charge.
The exit was curiously timed, just 11 months before these Games, and it has coincided with a precipitous drop-off in fortunes at this Olympic regatta – Britain won four rowing golds at London 2012 and three at Rio 2016.
Garry Herbert, who coxed the Searle brothers, Jonny and Greg, to gold in Barcelona in 1992, was withering in his assessment of the British underperformance, a pill so far sugared only by a silver medal for the men’s quadruple sculls. “You do not allow Grobler to stand down a year before a delayed Olympic Games,” he said. “This, well, I’m almost speechless.”
Nobody was more racked with self-reproach than Rossiter. “It’s pretty rough to finish on that note,” he said, as the British found themselves squeezed out of the podium by Australia, their age-old rivals in the four, Romania and Italy. The Italians would have secured silver had it not been for the British boat’s errant steering.
“We fully biffed into them,” Rossiter acknowledged. “They are pretty p----- off, because maybe we cost them the silver. Sorry to those guys. It’s an outdoor sport and this stuff happens. It’s just heartbreaking when it’s you and not something on YouTube.
“It’s rough to finish on that note. Coming fourth is the s------ place in the world. We’ve done so well in the last two years and then when it actually matters, we f----- it up. That’s sport.”
The only consolation for Britain came in the men’s quadruple sculls, where Harry Leask, Angus Groom, Tom Barras and Jack Beaumont finished second to earn Britain’s first ever medal in the event. “We’re hugely proud,” said Beaumont. “We’ve worked so hard. We’ve been part of a rowing team that’s had huge success, a huge tradition of British rowing.
“But, in our sculling team, there’s a tradition of being in the shadows a little bit. We’ve built on years of hard, hard work and near misses and I’m so proud to get this silver medal. It’s the start of a new history, and that’s awesome.”
Q&A: How do you steer a coxless boat... and why did it go so wrong?
By Rachel Quarrell
Why did GB lose control of steering in the final?
Steering in a coxless boat is tricky at the best of times, and this morning on the Sea Forest Waterway there was an awkward swirling wind pushing the boats sideways on the course. A moment's lapse of concentration during a race and a crew can be off their line within a couple of strokes, costing them speed and sometimes rhythm. This is what happened to the British men's four, who went dangerously off-course in the last few hundred metres, veering first towards Australia then the other way and clashing oars with Italy.
Who was responsible for steering?
In the post-race TV interview bow-man Oliver Cook apologised that he had not steered carefully enough, leading to their erratic course. "I'm responsible, I forgot the steering a little bit and that cost us a medal. To the lads, I'm sorry I didn't steer us the best line at the end", he said. And two-man Matt Rossiter said, "We fully biffed into the Italians. Maybe we cost them the silver and sorry to those guys."
When focusing on racing and taking powerful strokes thinking about steering can be difficult.
How does steering work?
In a coxless four, rowers use a pivoting footplate to steer. Connected by a wire to the underwater rudder below the stern of the boat it is difficult to do while rowing - pushing down through the legs with full effort and simultaneously using their ankle to correct the course. Not all rowers find it easy to foot-steer and use the lines of buoys to judge direction while going backwards.
With Olympic lanes very wide — at least 13.5 metres across — it may not be obvious to a rower straining his body to the maximum in the middle of an Olympic final, that the boat has gone off-course until it is too late. "When your vision's going blurry and your body's going stiff with lactic acid it's sometimes hard to stay on the ball", said Rossiter. "In the heat of the moment we just let the concentration go."
Has poor steering lost medals for GB before?
It's rare for steering to affect the outcome of an international race but not unknown even in coxed crews, although the cox is then able to repair the error much faster and has more sensitive control over the direction in which the boat points.
In Rio 2016 the men's four of Moe Sbihi, George Nash, Alex Gregory and Constantine Louloudis did well to recover a straight line after veering off course at the start of the final, before going on to win gold for GB.
At the 2017 world championships Graeme Thomas was a last minute substitute in the GB men's quad and was thrust into the unfamiliar role of steering. He later said he thought his poor steering had cost the crew at least 10m, which could have been the difference between silver and gold.