Rowers up the creek without a paddle

02 September 2014 - 02:07 By Ross Tucker
Doctor Know: Ross Tucker
Doctor Know: Ross Tucker
Image: Times Media Group

One of South Africa's best global sporting results of 2014 was achieved this weekend, but you are unlikely to know it, because sadly, it is not a sport that receives the newspaper headlines or television coverage that other sports enjoy.

It came in the form of South African rowing success at the World Championships in Amsterdam. John Smith and James Thompson won gold in the men's lightweight double sculls, in a world-best time.

Add a bronze for Shaun Keeling and Vincent Breet in the men's pair, three A-finals for the women (top six in the world) and another A-final for the men and a mixed boat each, and you have depth and quality of performance that should, once again, be a benchmark for other Olympic sports to aspire to.

This is the same programme that produced SA's London 2012 triumph, though on that occasion it was the men's lightweight four that won gold (Smith and Thompson were in that boat).

Since then, Roger Barrow, the high-performance manager of Rowing South Africa, has parlayed that success and belief into an even stronger programme.

He had begun, when taking over after the disappointments of Beijing in 2008, by consulting widely to create a vision for a world-class rowing programme, using the best-practice methods of high-performance sport.

He employed the wisdom of coaches such as Paul Jackson, who worked hands-on with the lightweight four. He developed a partnership with the University of Pretoria's High Performance Centre. He employed Jimmy Clark, a scientist whose job it was to analyse and manage the athletes in an evidence-based manner.

He brought on board a doctor, not just any doctor, but one who had worked with cancer patients, because he recognised that the chronic pain endured by elite rowers was not dissimilar to that suffered during cancer treatment.

At the time of the London gold medal, I wrote that it was the most significant medal that SA had yet won at the Olympics.

I confess some bias, and I in no way intend to detract from the significance of medallists such as Elana Meyer, Josia Thugwane, Penny Heyns and Caster Semenya. But the rowing medal felt different. It was different because it was a "medal by design", the result of a focused project set up by Barrow, and it represented a small microcosm of how high-performance sport should work.

Success was achieved, then and now, on a fraction of the resources needed.

Astonishingly, the 2012 gold medal was not followed by an increase in funding but a reduction, a telling indictment of South Africa's lack of visionary leadership in high-performance sport.

Instead of being rewarded for excellence, rowing was grouped with every other sport, and saw its funding cut as part of a general policy that caps sports at the same level.

Supported by some corporate sponsorship they pursued the vision regardless. Even R1-million per year extra would take the rowing programme to the next level.

But much like their physical ability to withstand pain and endure discomfort, Barrow and company have endured, and found a way. They relate stories of training camps on the Zambezi, where an armed escort had to accompany them to fire at crocodiles and hippos to prevent them from attacking boats. They deal with the competition of big money offers from universities in the US.

They pull together a team of volunteer coaches and ambitious athletes, who sacrifice years in pursuit of our medals.

They win, despite the sporting landscape in SA, because they've managed to create a high-performance culture of excellence. They are, or should be, a sponsor's delight. What they are not is rewarded or supported nearly enough.