Our Tokyo Campaign by Mark Davies, Chair

British Rowing Chair Mark Davies reflects on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic campaign and he expresses the pride we have for the athletes and coaches who represented Team GB

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The men's quad win Olympic silver (c) David Pearce

The worst performance by a British team since 1972, which is almost as long as I’ve been alive. Not a single gold medal. Shocking. Or it would be if it wasn’t so predictable with the change to a soft approach and the absurd decisions on coaches. Various people have got to go!

Well, actually, no. Plenty around us may be losing their heads, but we’re keeping ours. Admittedly, in terms of medals it was a disappointing regatta, and of course we will review every part of it thoroughly – as you would expect whatever the results. But on the face of it, it’s told us very little we didn’t know already, and so far seems to have confirmed in our minds a lot of things we did.

First of all, it’s clear we have a great set of young athletes. They gave us every reason to be immensely proud of them, as individuals and as a team – coming in one after the next in that most frustrating of all Olympic positions, and then fronting up at the rawest of moments. Having committed everything and come away with nothing, they were open and honest about their performances – what they gave, and where they fell short.

But they excelled not just as plucky losers. Making more finals as a team than any other country bar the Netherlands (who only matched them), they showed that they are there or thereabouts in every one, which bodes well for such a young squad in the future. In two, we  made the podium and in six we came fourth – by a combined total margin of 9.63seconds over 12KM – with two of the eight delivering GB’s best-ever result in their boat class. This, after 80% of the squad from Rio retired, such that the vast majority competing this week were Olympic virgins. I missed the flak the young New Zealand men’s eight got for finishing 6th in Rio, or that Emma Twigg had for her 9th, 4th and 4th-place finishes over three Olympiads. Both are now the most impressive of Olympic champions.

We always knew that the Tokyo Olympics fell at a time when the team was in transition. A stunning start to the season artificially raised expectations, but victories against European competition were no real indicator of how we would fare against the rest of the world – including some crews that had been able to prepare free of COVID disruption.  In turn, defeat to them should not cloud the bigger picture. We stepped on this week from our 2019 World Championship results, and if we were six whiskers away from doing so in style, we nonetheless took an important step towards Paris in three years’ time.

Second, the coaches – of which much has been said by people who haven’t worked with them. No-one wanted more for Jurgen Grobler still to be part of the story in Tokyo than I did, nor regrets more the fact that there comes a time for everyone to move on. The delay to Tokyo disrupted our eight-year plan in a way that Jurgen recognised as well as anyone, but to argue as some have that his retirement made all the difference flies in the face of logic (not least results from 2017 to 2019) and is insulting to the proven talent that has coached our crews since.

Third, our programme and culture. When I joined British Rowing, one of our most iconic gold medallists regaled me with a story of how, in the Olympic village, they would prefer to eat with crews from other countries than with our own team, such was the culture and level of antagonism in the squad. Separately, stories abound – and books have been written – of athletes whose experience with the GB Rowing Team was a success rather than a pleasure, when for longevity’s sake it really needs to be both. Just because one system worked spectacularly well in its era, that doesn’t make it fit for today or for the future. It seems to me that our aim of delivering a programme that can be enjoyed as well as celebrated should be attracting praise rather than criticism.

There’s no getting away from the fact that sporting success is measured in black and white, nor that in all but two cases we were on the wrong side of the medal line. Of course that outcome is disappointing to pundits, supporters, and those who watch rowing only once every four years – particularly when we have all been so spoiled by the stunning success of our sport for a generation.  But we will cut through the noise of criticism to remember, first, that it will be far more disappointing to the team themselves, and second that – crucially – there are plenty of positives to take from their performance.  Every crew improved through the Games; six came as close as you can come; and all took away learnings that will stand them in good stead. In short, they built a good, solid, and impressive platform to Paris, on which we will help them build. They should be proud of the progress they made. We are.

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