Tokyo Olympics: The culture shift of British rowing has begun without the job being done

The culture shift of British rowing has begun without the job being done… With the departure of Jurgen Grobler, the medals have dried up as Team GB suffer its worst performance since 1976

Next to the rowing lake lay a study in defeat. Moe Sbihi, who carried the flag to the opening ceremony, was inconsolable. Bronze in the men’s eight meant nothing to him. He hid his bauble under his top and pulled up the zipper. Even an hour later, he walked away from his crew members to calm himself.

He is an Olympic champion from Rio and for him gold is the only color worth the ribbon. Compare that to Andy Anson, CEO of the British Olympic Association, whose comments about the woefully underperforming rowers reveal a disturbing mindset and outlook.

He told the BBC: ‘We shouldn’t worry about it. They may not be at their best at these Olympics, but they’re heading for Paris. Much of what they focus on is the next three to four years.’

Moe Sbihi (center), who carried the flag to the opening ceremony, was inconsolable after Britain’s worst Olympic regatta since 1976

He is a Rio 2016 Olympic champion and for him gold is the only color worth the ribbon

He is a Rio 2016 Olympic champion and for him gold is the only color worth the ribbon

Sorry, Mr Anson, but the rowing program has funded £26.4 million in lottery money over its five-year cycle to Tokyo – more than any other sport – in return we hoped for a little success here. There are no more important Olympics than the one taking place right now.

He continued: ‘They are trying to change the rowing culture. Some of these sports — I’ve seen it in close-up football — have had one way of doing things, a pretty hardcore culture, trying to move into something where athletes are more supportive, where the environment is more supportive. It takes time.’

Yes, but what Anson has failed to acknowledge is that you shouldn’t start a ‘transition’ to a new regime until the job is done. Yet that is exactly what British Rowing has done.

They lost to Jurgen Grobler on August 21, an event hardly conducive to victories at the Sea Forest Waterway, where the total of British medals was two, a silver for the men’s quad and Friday’s bronze. This is GB’s worst performance since 1976.

Andy Anson's comments about underperforming rowers reveal a disturbing train of thought

Andy Anson’s comments about underperforming rowers reveal a disturbing train of thought

James Cracknell, Olympic champion in 2000 and 2004, noted that there is no one who would have trusted a crew more effectively than the no-nonsense East German alchemist who has won gold at all Games since 1972, with the exception of LA 1984, who boycotted his country.

He will turn 75 on Saturday. If Tokyo 2020 had taken place on its intended date rather than delayed by Covid, the eight men’s final would have coincided exactly with his 74th birthday. His stated wish was to celebrate with a gold.

Who says the 1.09 seconds that separated his former rowers in third place from New Zealanders in first place wouldn’t have ended if he had been here?

Brendan Purcell, British Rowing’s performance director, could not agree to the one-year extension Grobler sought. According to sources close to the scene, Purcell insisted that he commit to Paris, an offer he probably should have declined.

“Actually, Brendan and Jurgen didn’t get along in the end,” one of Grobler’s Olympic champions told me.

They lost to Jurgen Grobler (center) on August 21, an event hardly conducive to wins

They lost to Jurgen Grobler (center) on August 21, an event hardly conducive to wins

Purcell, an Australian who started rowing from triathlon in March 2018, spoke in a management speech about athlete empowerment on Friday. This fits into UK Sport’s unofficial mantra ‘Medals and More’, which reflects a desire to provide help rather than Grobler-style Darwinism.

Indeed, memories of the annual altitude camps in Silvretta, Austria – 2,030 meters above sea level – never left the minds of those who went. Grobler took his first GB rowers there 30 years ago, just as he had his East German women’s teams before.

He still used original equipment – the same bench press, squat rack and gym mats. All this will be wiped out.

The rowing world is divided on how far to go in a new direction. It is feared that it may be a while before they all swing together.

James Cracknell noted that there is no one who would have instilled more confidence in a crew than Grobler

James Cracknell noted that there is no one who would have instilled more confidence in a crew than Grobler

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