AS the World Rowing Federation, FISA, celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2017, we look back at rowing’s World Best Times and how the fastest rowers in the world have continued to get faster over the years.

World Best Times vs World Records

Strange as it sounds, rowing has no official World Records. What rowing has, however, are World Best Times.

“We do not call them ‘records’ because of the variations we experience in wind, water temperatures and sometimes flow,” says Matt Smith, FISA’s Executive Director. “We feel that these should not have the ‘status’ of a world record like in swimming and athletics where the environment is more fully under control. It would give these times more importance than we can credibly deliver.”

Despite the intrinsic variability that comes with outdoor performances in rowing, FISA makes every effort to maintain as much consistency as possible in determining what qualifies as a World Best Time. Smith points to the 2005 World Rowing Championships in Gifu, Japan as an example of the exaggerated results that can come with changing conditions. “We had a huge flow after a typhoon,” he recalls, “and this gave some amazing times which we decided we would not recognise.”

Tracking time through time

Record keeping during the early period of international rowing was not as thorough as it would become as the 20th century wore on. By the early 1990’s it was clear that rowing needed a standard list of best times.

“The World Best Times began as a FISA promotion project around 1990/1991,” Smith says. “We had a journalist (Gregory Page of a London newspaper), who contributed his own personal list of what he remembered as best times, and that was the starting point.”

“Of course, we went back in time if we knew of a great performance,” adds Smith. “Since then, it has evolved and we only use events that have Swiss Timing as the official timing service provider, to be as sure as possible.”

Trending faster

The most noticeable trend is that times are getting faster, but what really stands out is something seen in many other endurance sports, the difference between women’s and men’s results.

The Atlantic published an article (here) in 2012 noting that women’s race times across a number of sports were almost always within a percentage or so of 90 per cent of men’s times. With barely an exception, rowing’s World Best Times shows this to be the case as well:

Rowing WBTs as of 2016








Quadruple Sculls








Double Sculls








Single Sculls




Lightweight Quadruple Sculls




Lightweight Double Sculls




Lightweight Single Sculls





Closing the gap

When major improvements in performance create a larger difference between men’s and women’s times in a given event, what seems to follow is a re-convergence on that 90 per cent ratio.

For example, if we look at the World Best Times for the single sculls starting in 1996 with the women’s single WBT (7:17.60) at 90.73 per cent of the men’s WBT (6:37.03). While both times improved over the next 20 years, the current women’s time has remained unchanged since 2002 (7.07.71), when it was 92.66 per cent of the men’s WBT (6:36.33).  Since then the men’s times have been gradually closing the gap moving to 6:35.4 in 2006 then 6:33.35 in 2009, putting the W1x at 91.97 per cent.

The four is another case in point, where the women’s times stalled at 6:25.47 in the 1990s. In 1996 this placed the women’s four at 90.39 per cent of the men’s WBT (5:48.44). While the men’s four kept getting faster, hitting their current WBT (5:37.86) in 2012, the women’s four saw a marginal improvement of 0.12 seconds in 2006 dropping to 87.68 per cent of the men’s time by 2012.Then in 2014, the women’s four WBT was smashed and the new time (6:14.36) brought them back up to 90.25 per cent of the men’s event.

Find World Rowing’s World Best Times, Olympic and Paralympic Best Times here