Making history – the South African lightweight men’s four
The lightweight men’s four is never short of a thrill or two, and all those who witnessed history-in-the-making on Thursday 2 August, 2012 at Eton-Dorney, Great Britain may have had just enough thrills to last a lifetime.
The crowd roared, the stroke rates rocketed up to above 40, and four boats sprinted to the line in pursuit of Olympic gold. This week World Rowing is reviewing the exhilarating lightweight men’s four final, the result of which made history for South Africa. Not only was this the nation’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing, stroke Sizwe Lawrence Ndlovu became the first black African male rower to win gold.
Coming in to the Olympic regatta, several crews emerged as strong contenders for the top spot. Denmark is a crew with outstanding pedigree in this event. The man sitting at stroke, Eskild Ebbesen, is nothing short of a lightweight legend. He has three Olympic gold medals, won in 2008, 2004 and 1996, an Olympic bronze medal from 2000 and six World Championship titles to his name. Morten Jorgensen, sitting in the two seat, also has an Olympic gold medal, having rowed with Ebbesen at Beijing 2008. Kasper Winther and Jacob Barsoe are younger members of the crew. With World Rowing Cup gold and bronze medals to show from the 2012 season and an impressive amount of experience, it was clear Denmark were not to be underestimated.
Meanwhile, Great Britain stood on the medals podium at all three stages of the 2012 Samsung World Rowing Cup series adding a gold medal at the third and final regatta of the to the silver and bronze medals already won. World Champions in 2010 and World bronze medallists in 2011, the British made some crew changes at the start of this year as Peter Chambers, younger brother of crewmate Richard and World Rowing Champion in the lightweight men’s pair, came into the boat. He suffered injury during the season and was unable to race at the second World Rowing Cup yet at the third World Rowing Cup in Munich, Germany, the boat capitalised on good form, winning relatively comfortably over Australia and Denmark.
Both Australia and South Africa picked up silver medals at World Rowing Cup level, showing indications of high speed in tightly-contested racing. Anthony Edwards, who has two Olympic silver medals and one Olympic bronze medal, was sitting at bow for Australia. Benjamin Cureton, a crewmate of Edwards at the 2004 Olympic Games, also had an Olympic silver medal in his repertoire and was sitting in three seat. This crew enjoyed real success in 2011, becoming World Champions after a finely-executed race. Comparatively, the South African crew, James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and Ndlovu, was relatively inexperienced. This young crew, with an average age of 26, had no World Championship or Olympic medals, which perhaps makes what happened next all the more remarkable.
And so, to Eton-Dorney where the stage was set for the high rates and tight finishes that the lightweight men’s four is best known for. In the heats, Great Britain recorded the fastest time, winning over Australia. Switzerland enjoyed success beating South Africa and Denmark, while France won the third heat. The first semifinal saw Great Britain and Switzerland racing each other, Great Britain taking the lead in the third 500m to win. The Netherlands finishing third also qualified for the A-final. Meanwhile Denmark won the second semifinal against South Africa in second place and Australia in third, leading from the start with real intent.
The final was hotly-anticipated and the outcome unpredictable. Denmark had held on to the lead through the early stages of the race, with defending World Champions Australia sitting a canvas behind. Great Britain, with a slightly slower start, lurked on their shoulders in third spot whilst South Africa was lying ominously in fourth, biding their time. All four boats remained within a boat length of each other. In the final 500m, as Australia began to slip off the frenetic pace set by the Danes, the Brits and the South Africans, these three crews were neck and neck and the tension excruciating. South Africa, coming from almost a boat length down, executed a perfectly devastating sprint to pip Great Britain and Denmark at the line for the Olympic gold medal by 0.25s. Great Britain won the silver medal and Denmark, defending Olympic Champions, won bronze.
The racing tactic of the South Africans, to sprint from behind with so little distance left to race, was risky. The risk paid off. John Smith, otherwise known as “Bean”, said after the race: “I kept my head down in the boat; we kept ourselves for the big sprint. They say that big sprinters finish second – not today.”
Head coach Roger Barrow had every faith in the crew: “We knew they had a good sprint. Going in to the last 100m, we thought that they could get a medal if they were within one length of the leaders.”
Brittain also had belief in his crew, stating: “I knew we had a chance of getting a medal. It was the greatest moment of my life to see 1. RSA.” For stroke Ndlovu, he believed his crew would win gold coming in to the final 500m.
The reaction from the four men in the boat, the crowd, and the wider rowing community as a whole was indicative of how important this result was for South African rowing. The media interest has blown the men away; they needed a police escort at the airport as thousands of people waited to welcome them home. The crew was honoured with the World Rowing Male Crew of Year award as well as the South African Team of the Year award. As for legacy, Barrow now reports that the number of 13 to 14 year olds wanting to row has tripled at rowing schools.
For Ebbesen of Denmark too, this was his fifth Olympic medal. The colour didn’t matter to him after such a tight final: “It could have been gold, but it could have been fourth or fifth. I am very happy.”
For Britain’s rowers, the overwhelming support and the impact of a home crowd was breath-taking. After the final, Rob Williams said “the crowds are fantastic. That last 200m meters would have been a lot harder if they hadn’t been there.”
As we enter a new Olympic cycle, the rowing world looks ahead to the thrills that lie ahead at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.