Down Under Series: International rowing in Australia
The Samsung World Rowing Cup in Sydney, Australia represents the fifth time a global rowing event has been held in Australia.
On the world stage, rowers from down under have been exceptionally successful despite being so far removed, geographically, from most of their rivals. It is a rarity and a novelty for Australia's best to race the best in the world on their home waters.
1956 Melbourne Olympic Games
The rowing events for the 1956 Olympics were held east of Melbourne at Lake Wendouree in the town of Ballarat. With seven events available for men only, it represented a comparatively small gathering of elite rowers. However, the quality was extremely high with ten nations enjoying medal success. The legendary Soviet sculler Vyacheslav Ivanov took the singles title, his first of three Olympic golds, ahead of local favourite Stuart McKenzie with the famous John Kelly Jnr (USA) claiming bronze.
The Soviets were dominant in the two sculling events and the United States was equally foreboding in the sweep categories, claiming three golds including the men's eight. Italy and Canada were the surprise gold medal winners in the coxed and coxless fours. Australian rowing legend Merv Wood, at age 39, won a bronze medal in the double sculls (with Murray Riley) and Wood became the first Australian to carry the flag at two opening ceremonies: Helsinki 1952 and again in Melbourne.
1990 World Rowing Championships, Lake Barrington, Tasmania
Thomas Keller, FISA’s president, was invited to Tasmania in 1984 for the Australian National Championships to assess the possibility of the "Apple State" hosting a FISA Championships. After seeing the sheer beauty of Tasmania, sampling the hospitality of its people and witnessing the flawless organisation of the Nationals on perfect water, Keller remarked to former Rowing Australia CEO David Schier, "This is a place the world needs to see."
Lake Barrington was subsequently awarded the 1990 World Rowing Championships after a successful bid. The enthusiasm of the local community was immense. Schier remarked, "The volunteer requirements were filled within days.”
It was a welcome change for Australian rowers who usually had to make the trek overseas to get to big events every year. At the championships, Australian rowing stalwart Peter Antonie won a bronze medal in the men’s double sculls with Paul Reedy. Antonie remarked, "It was good to let them (rival athletes) go through the big travel gig for a change, and into the depths of the Tassie bush!"
Rowing in Australia went through a renaissance at this time and has never looked back. The regatta saw the first of many championship wins by the "Oarsome Foursome" men’s four. The regatta also saw the emergence of a formidable raft of successful Australian lightweight rowers, including Tasmanian abalone diver, Steve Hawkins, who went on to win Olympic gold with Antonie in Barcelona two years later. This World Championship hosted a record 41 competing nations and following the collapse of the Berlin Wall a year earlier, it was the last regatta where East and West Germany would compete as separate entities.
1993 World Cup, Yarra River, Melbourne
Starting in 1990, FISA had a World Cup series in a different format than the one existing today. It was for men and women single scullers only. In 1993, one round was held at the Australian Henley Regatta on the Yarra River in Melbourne. The Australian Henley Regatta is held on a two-lane course with two sweeping bends and several bridges to be negotiated, a perfect test of all-round single sculling ability. Many of the world’s best scullers at the time had difficulty outside the comfort zone of the Albano (buoyed course) system.
Peter Antonie, competing on his home river, won the men's event after an epic tussle with Sergio Fernandez of Argentina in the final. Antonie recalls, "We collided hard with 800m to go and got entangled. However, I managed to hook a stroke onto a section of his boat and broke clear to a roar from the crowd. I think Sergio couldn’t believe what had happened and wasn’t able to respond. To me it was business as usual on the Yarra."
World double scull champion Brenda Lawson from New Zealand won the women's event.
2000 Sydney Olympic Games
Much hype and expectation was placed around the Sydney Olympic Games and it did not disappoint. The city of Sydney went into Olympic overdrive to produce arguably the best Games in the modern era. The rowing events were staged at the purpose-built venue in Penrith, the scene for this year’s World Rowing Cup.
In 2000, the whole world had their eyes trained on Great Britain’s Steve Redgrave and his coxless four as he looked to enter the history books with a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal. Redgrave raced into the rowing annals after a hard fought battle with the Italians and the Australian men’s four.
The French men’s pair of Michel Andrieux and Jean-Christophe Rolland revolutionised race plans with a searing final sprint push just after the halfway point that devastated the field. New Zealander, Rob Waddell dominated the men’s single sculls, opening the floodgates for the New Zealand rowing invasion that was to follow. Olympic rowing also nearly saw a dead heat in the women’s single sculls when judges took almost 30 minutes to separate Ekaterina Karsten (BLR) and Rumyana Neykova (BUL) on the finish line. Karsten took the gold medal by 0.01 of a second.
The Australian rowing community is well aware that global rowing events rarely visit their nation. Like their New Zealand counterparts, they grab the opportunity with both hands to showcase their rowers, their nation and their passion for delivering top sporting events. They know more than most on what it is like to travel to the other side of the world to compete and this is a key ingredient in their successful organisation of past rowing events. The 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup is continuing the trend.
- Gearoid Towey