It’s a simple question, yet the answer holds significant meaning. Perhaps it’s a characterization of someone’s status within a perceived pecking order. In so many ways – good and bad – rowers are defined by their performances over 2000 metres, a distance that similarly defines our sport.

But what makes 2k the established distance universally both on the water and on the indoor rowing machine? It turns out that the root cause has a lot to do with the creation of the World Rowing Federation (FISA) which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

Early racing: variable distances

In the past, traditional rowing distances changed depending on the necessities of time and place. Narrow, winding rivers lent themselves to head race style events or side-by-side dual races like Great Britain’s Henley Royal Regatta. Wider open bodies of water gave more room for multiple boats to race side by side with the option of turning around a buoy or stake like Venice’s Regata Storica or the Royal St. John’s Regatta in Canada.

The length of a race could even change from year to year as the different venues were chosen. An example of this is the Cambridge vs Oxford Boat Race, whose distance was adjusted several times from 2.25 miles (3630m) for the first race in 1829 to 5.75 miles before finally settling in 1845 on the 4.2 mile (6800m) “Championship Course” still used today.

Standardisation and FISA’s role

The wide variety of racing distances from nation to nation and event to event within countries was one of the primary drivers for FISA’s creation in 1892. At first, however, it wasn’t clear if there would be a unified distance for all events, or if a different standard would be applied to each boat class.

As the optimal solution was sought out, course lengths remained somewhat fluid during the initial years of the European Rowing Championships. “In 1892 there were two distances at the Championships: 1800 and 3000 m,” says Bill Miller, Rowing Historian and curator at Friends of Rowing History <www.rowinghistory.net>.

The following year, the 2k finally made an appearance. “In 1883 the distance for the single sculls was 2000m,” Miller points out, while “fours and eights [raced] 3000m.”

In a decision that had more to do with the constraints of geography than anything else, the full move to 2000m came at the 1894 Championships, held in Macon (FRA). “The Saone River was ideal just over 2000m,” says Miller. “So you might say the Saone River determined the standard 2k course.”

While 2000m was now the established international standard, there were many significant variations through the early 1900s. By century’s end, however, the 2k would reign supreme as the championship distance of choice not just on the world stage, but nationally and regionally in countries around the globe.

Going the distance

The Olympic Games still saw the course length to change with each location (1750m in Paris 1900; 3218m in St. Louis 1904; 2412m in London 1908) before the FISA standard distance was adopted. The lone exception was London 1948, where the Olympic Regatta was held at Henley on Thames with racing over 1850m.

The evolution of national championship regattas in various countries provide more examples of the move toward the standard distance over the 20th century. Miller points to the university racing in the United States as a major example of this trend in the United States. “Colleges raced distances that their rivers or lakes could accommodate, usually 1.75 miles (2816m) to 4 miles (6437m). [Eventually] in Olympic years the standard distance became 2k in preparation for the Olympic trials.”

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Indoor rowing racing 2500m to 2000m

The influence of the 2000m standard, however, doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it can be seen – and felt – on the ergometer.

One of the longest-running indoor rowing events in the world, the C.R.A.S.H.-B’s, held in Boston (USA) each February since the early 1980s, has gone through a few changes since its founding in the early 1980s. It began as a brutal five miles (8047m) on Concept2’s Model A ergometer, then shifted to 2500m (because the distance compared well with on-water race times) between the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s before finally arriving at 2000m.

The measure of a sport

While the growth of rowing’s popularity is pushing the sport in new directions beyond – and below — the 2000m standard with some regattas using 1000m or even 250m and the World Indoor Sprints including 1000m and team relays, the 2k remains the sport’s defining distance.

Since its adoption, a unified distance has served to bring the rowing world closer together. With each historic alignment of distances at the international level – for women, juniors and most recently para rowers –the sport has advanced to a more open, equitable and global future.