Thursday, 2 August 2012

The dark underbelly of British rowing. Or something like that....

Patrick Greenfield's blog byline warns readers to expect  "a serious examination of what the Olympic Games reveal about Britain" in his articles.

Clearly anxious not to disappoint his keen readership, this is what he has come up with:

"British Rowing fails to hide its classist underbelly"

This blogpost has been perused with great interest by many members of the rowing community.  Some of them have been moved to comment on Mr Greenfield's blog.  Unfortunately, these comments have mysteriously disappeared.  Since he has clearly put a good deal of careful research into this serious examination of sporting and social issues, I think it would be appropriate to respond equally thoroughly to Mr Greenfield's points.

"I only have one moan about the Olympics"

Really?  Only one moan?  The organising committee have got to be chuffed with that.  Most people can summon up at least two moans.  The ticketing problems and the heavy-handed brand police are among the more popular.  What is this sole complaint?  It must be truly serious to warrant its own blogpost.

"why have Eton College been allowed to host the rowing?"

Oh.  That's it?  The only thing wrong with the Olympics?  What can possibly be amiss with this choice of venue?

"Allowing our nation’s most selective private school to hold an Olympic event when the Docklands are home to a state-of-the-art rowing centre is a disgrace to the Olympic Legacy"

Really?  A disgrace to the Olympic legacy?  I'm not quite sure that this hyperbole stands up under in-depth examination.  Actually, I'm not sure it stands up to even a passing, casual glance.

Firstly, Eton College might own Dorney Lake, which is managed by the Dorney Lake Trust, but it isn't as though they have randomly been allowed to host an Olympic event on their playing fields, with members of the PTA selling tickets on the gate and claiming a monopoly on refreshments with a cake stall and booze tombola.  Dorney Lake is a world class facility, which has grown far beyond the scope of its orginal remit.  It is open to anyone who wishes to train there, even those who *gasp* did not attend a selective public school.  The army train there, and their head coach has worked with the local authority to run courses for childen from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those who have been beginning to get into trouble with the police.  Some years ago, when I was doing a lot of work with young people who were being threatened with ASBOs, I had some discussions with the Dorney management about bringing some children down from an inner London borough to try out rowing at the lake.  This fell through only because the local authority were unable to free up funding, not because the denizens of Eton College fell into a fit of the vapours at the thought of poor people crossing their hallowed threshold.

But let's have a look at the real gem at the heart of this claim - that Docklands are home to a state-of-the-art rowing centre.  Now it does not appear that Mr Greenfield is himself involved in rowing, so how has he come by this information?  Has he visited the two facilities he is discussing?  Interviewed members of local clubs, as well as the British team?  A quick google search of the terms "Docklands rowing centre" might just provide the answer.  The second result is a link to a free listing for the London Regatta Centre.  The information visible on the search results states "The London Regatta Centre, a state-of-the-art rowing centre located in the heart of the Docklands in the East End of London is built at the west end of the Royal ..."

Did he even open the link?

The first result is for Curlew Rowing Club who refer to the "a state-of-the-art" rowing tank at Docklands.  HaHA!  There it is!  Straight from the mouths of rowers themselves - the Docklands rowing tank is indeed "state-of-the-art".  That proves it.

Oh.  Wait a minute.  I've heard a rumour that the Olympic rowing will take place on actual, real water.  You know.  The outside kind.  Not in an indoor rowing tank with a nice, stable, pretendy boat.

The rowing tank might be a state-of-the-art, but Docklands is, by no stretch of even the most furtive imagination, an Olympic-standard rowing course.  I am going to go out on a limb here and posit that Mr Greenfield has never actually tried to get a rowing boat from the start of the Docklands course to the finish in a light breeze.  Docklands is a fair weather facility.  In light wind it is unpleasant.  In stronger weather conditions it is unrowable.  The wash bounces off the high walls and can quickly create sinking conditions.  Even if it is, in theory, possible to continue racing, the unfairness between the lanes is marked.  I suspect the Olympic organisers wouldn't be particularly open to the idea of giving the crews in lanes 5 and 6 a head-start, or making the men's eights final a handicap event, which would mean that the culmination of many years of hard work could come down to whether the wind is blowing or not.

Then there is the issue of spectators.  On one side of the lake is City Airport.  The other is partially lined with flats.  Unless residents were to be asked to allow supporters to hang out of their bedroom windows, I'm not sure exactly where Mr Greenfield thinks the organisers should put a capacity crowd.  And how would these hypothetical spectators get there?  The lake is served by the Docklands Light Railway which, while a lot of fun if you can get the front seats and pretend to be on a rollercoaster, probably isn't best suited to shipping in thousands of visitors.  And even if they got there, I suspect that people might prefer not to queue for eight months to actually leave again.  If Docklands hosted the rowing, I would expect the immigrant population of the area to go up by around 1000% when overseas visitors realised that they might as well give up trying to leave, get some seasonal work in a local bar and try again in three years' time.

So, all in all, the Docklands idea is probably not a goer.


So, moving on.  I'll pass over the question of "Why would we choose to hold the Olympic rowing anywhere else?" because I think I've pretty much covered that.  Let's have a look at Mr Greenfield's real point.  His angle.  Because every good post needs an angle, doesn't it.

Unfortunately, if your average broadsheet opinion piece has the equivalent of a 90 degree right-angle, Mr Greenfield has got a little carried away, overshot wildly and finished up with something around the 359 degree mark.

Apparently "Arguably rowing has always been the most exclusive, classist sport in Britain".  I'm relieved that this sentence started with the word "arguably".  Because I intend to argue it.  With one word.


Actually, I might use a few more words to point out that Britain's first gold medal was yesterday won by a member of the British army and a former PE teacher from Bath who turned up for a World Class Start testing event four years ago, having never been in a boat before 2008.

I'm going to hazard a guess that neither of them went to Eton.

Another of our best medal hopes will line up at the start tomorrow.  She began rowing 18 years ago on a stretch of Scottish water, barely 1500 metres long and so narrow that two boats could not pass without pulling into the bank, leaning over and pulling their blades in as far as they would go.  The clubhouse was effectively a glorified shed at the end of a residential cul-de-sac.  The one advantage of this stretch of shallow water was that it was pretty much impossible to capsize, and if you ran aground it wouldn't be on rocks, it would be on the stack of abandoned porn magazines that formed the highest submerged point of the canal.  If you looked down you could see a scantily clad woman winking at you alluringly, like the mermaids of myth who enticed weak-willed sailors to their doom. 

It was definitely not state-of-the-art.

And no, she didn't go to Eton either.

"The majority of British rowers have incredibly privileged backgrounds and London 2012 was the perfect opportunity to open up the sport to everyone."

What?  Like the World Class Start program has been doing for the last few years?  There are a huge number of small, local rowing clubs throughout the country.  They don't ask to see your bank balance before letting you through the door.  There are an awful lot of people in an awful lot of sports who come from backgrounds that are more privileged than most.  Children from higher-income families will, unfortunately, generally have more opportunities than those whose parents are low-earners.  This isn't right and, in an ideal society, every child would have an equal chance to succeed.  There are things that can be done, and things that are being done.  There are many, many community sporting programs that have benefited from London 2012.  There is still a good deal of work needed in this area.  Unfortunately, Mr Greenfield has chosen to take the usual easy pop at a "toffs' sport", instead of actually examining the issue of sporting achievement and social background.

I suppose we should just be glad he didn't decide to follow the example of Trenton Oldfield and swim across in front of the women's pairs.

Oops, I've missed a bit.

"There are ten rowing lakes in the UK, mainly situated in the south-west and east of England to cater for Oxford, Cambridge and the big private schools."

Okay.  Now I am getting a bit shouty.  THEY ARE NOT ALL OLYMPIC STANDARD FACILITIES.

I wonder if the rowing should, in the interests of diversity, have been held at Talkin Tarn in Cumbria?  I suspect the men's eights might have had a few problems with the requirement to hold your boat up hard on the finish line in order to avoid mounting the bank at the end of the 500m course that can just about fit diagonally across the lake.

Mr Greenfield exhorts his readers "Do not mistake this article for a Marxist rant."

No.  I can safely say that I have not had to check the header to make sure that I am not reading the writings of Marx.  Not so much.

His parting shot: 

"Seb Coe spoke of sport’s truth and purity in his opening speech- his words are not applicable to British rowing."

Really?  Tell that to the women's pair.

I'm trying to resist.   I really am.....oh what the hell.

You utter nobber.


  1. " At least two moans" HAHAHAHAHAH Great post!

  2. If I'd known this post was going to be circulated on mumsnet and Tots100 I probably wouldn't have finished it with "you utter nobber"!