PETER CONI was formidably bright and well-read and chose to split his life between the law, where such qualities are commonplace, and rowing, where he stood out as a very special figure.
Coni started rowing at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, and switched to London Rowing Club when he came to London to work at the Bar. Coni's career as an oarsman was extended and he won many of the prizes offered on the the club circuit but was disappointed that he never rose to international status. In 1974, as soon as he had stopped competing, he was elected a steward of Henley Royal Regatta and became chairman of the committee of management in 1977. This role became the centrepiece of his career and his life and through his sustained effort the regatta passed the greatest period of growth and development in its 150-year history. He had no preconceptions of 'how things have to be because they have always been'.
He lived in, and through, the regatta for about a month before it opened each summer and would have to dress up several times a day in collar, tie and blazer whenever his work demanded it; but he almost never managed to improve on the rotten blue trainers on his feet which were distinguished by the way their trademark stripes curled. It is true that the appearance of his feet did not matter, because it was his knowing of every precedent and every administrative wrinkle, and the pleasure he took in solving the problems of the regatta, that captured the attention.
In 15 years as chairman, Coni took the regatta from four days of racing to five. He put up, and paid for, an admired headquarters building designed by Terry Farrell. He admitted women's races and then dropped them. He admitted huge numbers of corporate entertainers but kept them, mostly, outside the Stewards' enclosure, although he took enough profit from them to move the regatta surplus from pounds 1,547 in 1975 to over pounds 300,000 in each of the last five years.
From this axle the spokes of Coni's influence in the rowing world radiated and he was involved in every organisation of importance in the sport. Because, largely as a result of his influence, rowing was one of the first sports to start random, out-of-season drug tests for athletes, he was invited to chair the British inquiry into drug abuse by athletes in 1988.
Coni took silk in 1980, although by then his devotion to rowing was a hindrance to his career as a lawyer. As a QC he specialised principally in criminal and fraud cases. His work was marked for its deep preparation and juniors who were led by him knew they had a soft ride because he was sure to have done the work.
Coni resigned as chairman of Henley, on grounds of ill-health, in January this year, but attended all five days of racing and gave the prizes away at the end. This weekend he was at Lucerne acting as head of the British team and took great satisfaction from being able to congratulate eight British winners at the medal presentations.
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