A Look Back at Early Olympic Rowing

The summer Olympics just kicked off in Rio, where concerns over the quality and safety of the water at the rowing venue has dominated the news. Racing began in earnest yesterday, with rowers fighting chop and wind.

Did you know …

Rowing had been on the program for the 1896 Olympics in Athens, but high winds and cold rain caused boats to be swept ashore, and officials were forced to cancel all rowing events. 

At the Summer Olympics in Paris, where six rowing events were held, the Dutch men’s coxed pair crew of Francois Brandt and Roelof Klein made a last-minute decision that their coxswain, Hermanus Brockman, was too heavy and slowing down their boat. When they saw that the French pair had a very young light-weight boy, they recruited a young Parisian boy to cox their boat. Despite having no coxing experience, the Dutch team took silver in semifinals, and gold overall. After the race, the young boy disappeared and his name has been lost to history.

1912: THE 2,000M RACE
The current 2,000m race format that we all know, wasn’t standard before the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. In 1900 in Paris, races were 1,750m. In 1904 in St. Louis the course was 3,218m! In 1908 (2,412m) and 1948 (1,850m) when Summer Olympic games were held in London, rowers made their way down the Henley Royal Regatta course. Until 1988, women’s races were 1,000m.

By the time 23-year-old Australian sculler Bobby Pearce (in photo above) reached the Olympics in Amsterdam, he had been rowing – and racing – for 17 years. He easily beat his German rival in the first round, finishing a full 26 seconds in the lead, setting record time for the distance. In round 2, Pearce rowed against a Dane oarsman beating him by eight lengths. Moving on to the quarter finals, Pearce was eyed as the favorite against French sculler Victor Saurin. As he told it to a Dutch newspaper:

“I had beaten a German and a Dane in earlier heats and I was racing a Frenchman when I heard wild roars from the crowd along the bank of the canal. I could see some spectators vigorously pointing to something behind me, in my path. I peeked over one shoulder and saw something I didn’t like, for a family of ducks in single file was swimming slowly from shore to shore. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t at the time for I had to lean on my oars and wait for a clear course, and all the while my opponent was pulling away to a five length lead.”

In what seems an impossible feat, Pearce was able to catch the Frenchman, pull ahead, and win by nearly 30 seconds. That win sent him through to the semi-finals (he won by four lengths) and then on to the finals, where he set a course record of 7:11 that stood for Olympic single sculls until 1972.

It was just six weeks before the Olympics when British scullers Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell started training together. Bushnell stood 5’9″ next to his 6’4″ partner. And their backgrounds were sharply different: young Burnell had come up through the classic system, rowing at Eton, Oxford, and then Leander. Bushnell was working class, and had spent his youth as an apprentice at Southampton Docks, saving up money to buy his own scull.

Together they settled on a risky plan to deliberately lose their heat against the French in order to avoid meeting Denmark, their main rivals, in the semi-final. The ensuing repechage went exactly as they had planned, moving them into the final where they took on the Danes. As Burnell later told it, the race hinged on a moment when he saw the bowman from Denmark looking anxiously over at them. Burnell yelled out “Now!” and he and Bushnell took off, clearing the Danes by two lengths to win gold. Britain wouldn’t earn another rowing gold medal until Steve Redgrave and his coxed four stepped up in 1984.