LONDON. — It’s a truism that every Olympic sport, and indeed every aspiring Olympic sport, wants to grow.
You don’t hear a lot of International Federation Presidents talking in urgent tones about the need to reduce participation.
But the question of growth is complex – does it mean more people, or does it mean people doing better?
That is a dilemma upon which the World Rowing Federation FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron) is currently pondering.
Speaking in September after this year’s World Championships in his native France, FISA President Jean-Christophe Rolland spoke of the need to “develop rowing of all different kinds”, adding: “We have to renew ourselves as an Olympic sport.”
As the Rio 2016 Games loom on the horizon, there has been another rise in involved nations to 110, with newcomers this year including Djibouti, Haiti, Malawi and Trinidad and Tobago, with the latter emerging as potential qualifiers in the Para-Olympic disciplines.
The African Continental Qualification event for the Rio 2016 Olympics, held last month in Tunis, involved the largest number of competitors ever seen at the regatta.
Of the 10 boats which achieved Rio 2016 qualification at last month’s African Qualification Regatta, two were from Zimbabwe. And both rowers – single scullers Micheen Thornycroft, who competed at the London 2012 Games, and Peter Purcell-Gilpin – owed much to the guidance offered by FISA’s resident “home-grown coach” in the landlocked country, Rachel Davis.
Davis, a Canadian with extensive coaching experience, first went over to Zimbabwe as part of FISA’s Rowing In Africa project in 1996.
Her subsequent experiences illustrate how a dedicated, altruistic coach can benefit a broad base of rowers and aspiring international competitors.
But it also illustrates how, even with the best will, elite performers are still obliged to hone their talents in the established “rowing powerhouse” nations.
“In 1997 when my year was up I married a Zimbabwean and have been in the country ever since,” says Davis, who has a job as a school PE teacher in Harare.
“Now I do commissioned work for FISA (coaching on development camps and more recently qualifying coaches).”
Reflecting upon the task with which she has been engaged over a period of nearly 20 years, Davis says: “There is no tradition of rowing in Zimbabwe – or most of Africa, for that matter. The work here has been very much focused on junior rowers, many of whom get support from their schools. We have five clubs associated with high schools, and one adult rowing club.
“We train mostly on two lakes close to the capital, Harare, and when we put on regattas we can expect about 300 rowers aged between 14 and 60.
“We have some decent boats, including Swift racing shells from China. We don’t train in 20-year-old wooden boats or anything like that.
“But getting hold of boats is not always easy. At the moment we have two we are waiting to get over the border from South Africa, but the Government here has just said it wants 40 per cent of the value in tax, which was quite unexpected.”
Thornycroft’s own rowing career was impacted by another unexpected intervention from the Government, as Davis explains.
“Micheen and I first worked together when she was in high school at Peterhouse Girls’ School in Marondera,” she said.
“It is an all girls’ boarding school. Both her older sister Roseanne and younger brother Patrick were a part of my rowing programme there.
“In 2003 Micheen left school and went to Rhodes University in South Africa where she rowed in eights with her sister Roseanne.
“In June 2011 Micheen contacted me having heard about the qualification regatta happening in Alexandria, Egypt in October of that year. She was then working at a school in Pretoria teaching and coaching.
“I had moved schools and was based in Harare. So I agreed to meet up with Micheen in Alexandria for the FISA 10-day training camp prior to the regatta and we would give it a shot.”
Thornycroft, now 28, duly qualified for London 2012, resigned from her job in South Africa and moved in temporarily with Davis in Harare while she concentrated on her Olympic training.
Much of that training took place at a dam north of the capital – and entailed dodging hippopotamuses and crocodiles when their lake all but dried up during a drought.
After such experiences, even the London Olympics paled…
“Our goal for 2012 was to enter the race feeling as if we were prepared and ready for a fair fight,” Davis recalls.
“What was realistic, given the time-frame and the resources, was to be somewhere in the middle of the pack.
“We also wanted to spread the spirit of Olympism throughout our journey. She came second in the C final in London and we felt we had accomplished what we set out to do on both fronts.” — Inside the Games.