Swerving off course, veering out of its lane at the last. Sport loves a metaphor. As Britain’s Olympic rowers reeled off a series of wholehearted but ultimately disappointing finishes at the Tokyo 2020 waterfront it was hard to avoid the sense the men’s coxless four had dished up their own slightly hammy, if unavoidably persuasive image in its final race.
By the end of Wednesday’s programme one thing did seem uncomfortably clear. The choice to allow Jürgen Gröbler to leave a year before these Games, a decision made by men who can only guess vaguely at Gröbler’s depth of fine-point expertise, looks as rash and as damaging now as it did at the time.
Sometimes sport is simple. Don’t give up. Don’t argue with the referee. And don’t, whatever you do, get rid of Jürgen Gröbler while there is still a chance the greatest asset British rowing ever invested in – the man who has nurtured an entire culture of success, beloved of his athletes, obsessively committed as ever – might stick around for another Games.
The men’s double sculls, the men’s and women’s fours and the men’s quad sculls gave everything they had at the Sea Forest Waterway. There is no more violently punishing aerobic sport than this. In the final strokes Olympic rowers are seeing the world through a deep red blur of pain, as close to blacking out as we’re allowed to expect of these athletes.
At the end of which the British team finished the day with three fourth places and a silver medal – Harry Leask, Angus Groom, Tom Barras and Jack Beaumont taking the first ever British medal in men’s quad sculls after a thrilling, glorious finish.
Elsewhere the margins were small, although less so in the men’s four, which provided the most puzzling endgame. British rowing came to Tokyo having dominated this event for two decades, with five golds going back to Sydney 2000 and a bronze in Atlanta prior to that.
In Tokyo they sent out an inexperienced crew, without a surviving member of the glory years. The rowers gave it everything. Ahead of them the Australian and Romanian boats produced a thrilling race for gold. Sometimes you’re just not the story.
But ultimately this was a collapse, the British boat skewing across its lane at the last and almost crashing into the Italians – who went on to win bronze, but would be justified in feeling miffed to suffer such an intrusion at this level of racing. This is not the local boating lake.
It would be entirely wrong to see any lack of will here. Some part of the GB boat had stopped functioning at that moment, utterly raced-out. This is a case of athletic bravery in extremis. But it isn’t world champion rowing. And that has been the business here for the last quarter century of well-resourced success.
Earlier in the day Graeme Thomas and John Collins had started smoothly in the double sculls but finished fourth behind a fine race for gold in which France edged out the Netherlands. The women’s four – Rowan McKellar, Harriet Taylor, Karen Bennett and Rebecca Shorten – left nothing in the boat. Australia and the Netherlands provided the one-two, but the British women can be proud of their fourth place.
Then came the men’s four, Sholto Carnegie, Oliver Cook, Rory Gibbs and Matthew Rossiter shouldering the burden of that glorious winning culture. For a while they were solid in the silver medal spot, but they tied up at the last. Australia took gold after another thrilling race. “We tried our best but we really screwed up there at the finish so it’s a bit heartbreaking,” said Rossiter, who also took aim at Britain’s “smug” former fours gold winners. “There’s no sugarcoating it – we’re absolutely devastated.”
There is a chance of more British success on Thursday. The women’s pair have a fighting chance of a medal. The men’s eight are the defending Olympic champs. But it is hard not to feel the sense of an ending about British rowing’s efforts here; and even harder to understand the logic of refusing to do whatever it took to send the team to these strange, gruelling Games still held together by the magic ingredient, their own performance-enhancing German pensioner.
It feels doubly poignant now to rewind to the day Britain’s rowers finally assembled for their pre-Games camps after all that lost time lifting tins of lockdown ravioli, and felt the reality of Gröbler’s departure.
“I am struggling to understand why he went, under a year out from the Tokyo Olympics,” Moe Sbihi told the Daily Telegraph. He isn’t alone in this.
Gröbler had planned to retire after these Games. When they were pushed back a year British Rowing asked that he stay for France too. Gröbler is 74. This was a bridge too far. He was waved out of the door, a little ignobly, a captain denied the final honour of going down in service with his crew.
Gröbler’s departure was part of a mass reshuffle of coaching staff, replaced by increased levels of “lead coach autonomy” and “consensus-driven selection groups”. The director of performance, Brendan Purcell, came into rowing from triathlon with a brief to overhaul “the culture”. Job done in one sense. Britain topped the medals table three times in a row before Tokyo 2020. The target here was four to six medals. They need snookers.
Does this matter? Rowing remains a success story at the elite end given its narrow base. In a sense it has outgrown its own supporting culture. This is a big ticket British Olympic sport with very little outside money coming in, but remains a glorious pastime for many people and a fine competitive hobby at amateur levels. Perhaps this is its natural level.
The urge to wring medals out of the sport will remain while the funding and the apparatus of that culture is in place, and failure to do so remains an unrealised investment. When the current management decided to junk the Gröbler era with so little sentiment, and against the wishes of many athletes, its actions insisted it be judged on the results.
Planning for Paris in 2024 has been the talk, and who knows, this may end up a winning strategy. But for all the best efforts of those on the water it didn’t look like one here.