A count of the World Rowing Federation's (FISA) member national rowing federations reveal that around two-thirds of the countries choose to have their oars look very much like their national flag. The remaining one-third choose a whole array of designs.

New Zealand’s all-black blade with a silver fern and the letters 'NZ' looks absolutely nothing like their nation’s flag. Ireland’s oars underwent a facelift in the last Olympic cycle with the addition of a stylized shamrock to their traditional green blade making it even more distinct from their flag. Even the United States seem to have traded in their stars and stripes – one of the most recognisable national symbol in the world – for a geometric arrangement of red, white and blue.

For New Zealand, the silver fern on a black background has been a powerful and popular symbol of national identity for over a hundred years. It is strongly associated with all of their international sports teams (most famously the New Zealand rugby team, known the world over as the All Blacks). Currently the nation is debating changing the national flag with a design based on the silver fern a popular option. This debate may end up being a rare situation where a potential new flag will look more like the oars of the national rowing team.

Oars, 2015 World Rowing Championships, Ai_ © Detlev Seyb/MyRowingPhoto.com

The turbulence of history has created a rather unique situation for the Irish. Rowing is one community bridging the gap between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by providing the opportunity to race internationally as an 'all-island' team.

“Rowing is one of only a few sports in Ireland that compete as a unified team,” says Roadhan Cooke, a member of Rowing Ireland’s board of directors. “In any crew, you may have people from both ends of the cultural and political spectrum and depending on what side you are on, the tri-colour (green, white and orange flag of the Republic of Ireland) may not be representative. The green blade is non-contentious. “It isn’t the flag of a nation state.”

Like New Zealand, a leaf has become a symbol for the Irish. The shamrock addition to the Irish rowing oar made its Olympic debut at the London 2012 Games and Cooke feels it continues to resonate with rowers across Ireland. “It is something federating and as something on the blade it is nice to look at. I think that both the green on its own and the current design are well-liked and I think rowers from both North and South feel it is an appropriate symbol of their identity.”

The United States' distinctive red, white and blue painted blades differ from New Zealand and Ireland in that they convey the same national colours as their flag. The three geometric blocks of colour may seem to symbolise rather than recreate the flag’s more complex series of 13 alternating red and white stripes and accompanying star-spangled field of blue. It took some time to settle on this design though.

“Before 1960 it was up to the crews to use their university or club oars and sculls,” says Bill Miller, member of the USA 1972 Olympic team turned rowing historian and a curator of www.rowinghistory.net . “They didn’t pay much attention to universally painting blades with any US colours or designs.” In 1960, the US crews raced with red, white and blue chevrons and the logo of the US Olympic Committee on their oars. In 1964 the current design was introduced.

Now that FISA has grown from 142 member national rowing federations, to 148 in September this year, there will be some new oar designs being developed. The ability to distinguish a country through the look of their oar has proved to be a meaningful art.