Every nation for itself

By the 1890s rowing had established itself as a major sport in Europe and America and boating clubs had already begun to appear around the world as far away as Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.

Yet this surge in popularity had led to significant variation from place to place. Some of the big issues that had to be overcome for international competitions to take place included standardisation of the rules and technical specifications for shells and racing equipment.

“Race rules differed from club to club,” recorded Louis Choisy, a long time FISA administrator who served as Secretary Treasurer from 1925 to 1927. “The distance varied between 3,000 and 4,000 metres with several turns. We tracked round a buoy, a post or a ball, sometimes round a single turn, sometimes round three laid out in a triangle, some to port, some to starboard.”

“There were no restrictions on the construction and equipping of craft!” continued Choisy. “You can imagine what it was like when there were three different types of craft competing together!”

Not surprisingly, Choisy also noted the ever present question of professionalism in the late 19th century: “Finally, there was complete liberty on the subject of prizes,” he recalled. “Amateurism was practically unknown; bookmakers laid the odds, members of the jury and the oarsmen themselves were the keenest gamblers (…) It became imperative to emerge from this chaos."

The professionals

The reality was that rowing had fallen victim to its own success. The rise of professional racers competing for enormous cash prizes and high stakes betting were matched stroke for stroke with corruption and what many saw as the degradation of the spirit of amateurism in sport.

In Great Britain, the stewards of the Henley Royal Regatta had taken an early stand against professionalism in the 1870s and 1880s. They developed a narrow definition of ‘amateur’ that was soon adopted by London’s Amateur Rowing Association.

In the 1890s, at the time FISA came into being, the question of what constituted an amateur was one faced by all of the embryonic national rowing associations. There was no agreed upon definition; coming to some sort of compromise was therefore necessary for international racing to move forward.

Order and regulation

In the first concerted attempt to bring some sense of unity, the Belgian Federation of Rowing Clubs hosted a ‘European Championship’ in 1890. Restricted to one outrigger sculling event, races were held over a 2,840 metre straight course on the Terneuzen Canal near Ghent. The Belgians then called for an international congress of rowing federations; delegates from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland met in Brussels in 1891.

These representatives took the first steps toward the standardisation of rowing. With the primary goal of creating a common definition of ‘amateur,’ they agreed to meet again in 1892 in Turin, Italy.


In 1892 delegates came together in northern Italy from clubs and federations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (representing all the Adriatic clubs), Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, Italy, Switzerland as well as the several regional rowing associations across France. Barcelona’s Real Club did not attend, but pledged their support and Great Britain’s Amateur Rowing Association similarly declined to send a delegate but sent wishes that the conference would be a success.

One major outcome of this meeting was the adoption of a definition of ‘amateur’ as ‘those who were deemed to be so by their own country.’ Completely barred from FISA regattas, however, were all rowers who had competed for cash prizes as well as professionals in boat-related industries including ferrymen, sailors, boat builders and even paid coaches.

The lasting success of this historic meeting was not just the codification of rules for competitions between clubs of different nations, but the formation of a new type of supranational confederation that would govern the sport and organise the annual championship.

This birth of FISA marked not only a new chapter in the development of rowing, but by creating the first ever international sports federation, rowing served as the standard bearer as a new golden age of internationalism in sport was taking shape.

An Olympic age

This was the age of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. An avid rower, Coubertin had campaigned long and hard to secure a place for physical activity within the education system in his French homeland. He had travelled across Europe and America, drawing inspiration from the transformative nature of sport within society and more importantly its potential for peace between nations.

“Let us export rowers, runners, and fencers,” he famously said at a November 1892 conference on international sport at the Sorbonne in Paris. “And,” he continued, “on the day when it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new mighty stay. This is enough to encourage your servant (Coubertin) to dream now about […] the restoration of the Olympic Games.”

It took two more years for Coubertin’s dream to become a reality when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established in 1894 with the objective of holding the first Olympic Games of the modern era – the first in almost 2,000 years.

The inaugural Games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Unlike the Games of ancient Greece, however, they were open to athletes from all nations. With a governing body in place and a set of internationally agreed upon rules, rowing was naturally one of the very first sports included on the Olympic Programme.

Rough weather forced the cancellation of the Olympic regatta in 1896. Since then, however, rowing has been successfully staged at every Games and holds pride of place as the first International Federation within the modern Olympic Movement.

20/20 vision

In the 125 years since its founding, FISA has grown to include 150 National Rowing Federations. The sport has spread across the world. It has widened its appeal through coastal rowing while para-rowing has opened up opportunities for participants of varying abilities and the rowing machine has revolutionised access to rowing.

Equality of athletes has become paramount. When FISA was formed, the honourable gentlemen – for men they all were – made no provision for women in their grand vision for international rowing. The advancement toward the first inclusion of women’s events at the international level in the 1950s and their Olympic debut in 1976 was long and gradual.

One thing has remained consistent in FISA. In the eyes of FISA Vice President and IOC member Tricia Smith, who reflects on her involvement with FISA, starting as an athlete in 1976: “there is such respect for and between the athletes. Everyone engaged in FISA is there because they love the sport.”

“It is something that hasn’t changed,” says Smith. “As an athlete I felt that when Thomas Keller was FISA’s President and again under the leadership of Denis Oswald and now Jean-Christophe Rolland. It is all about the athletes; all about the sport.  The athletes are at the centre of every decision we make.”

Each month World Rowing will take a look at some of the major achievements and advances that have happened in the history of FISA.