Rowing: The all-seeing eye focused on Britain's quest for greatness Jürgen Grobler

Redgrave and Pinsent are history but the Henley Regatta, which begins on Wednesday, may provide a glimpse of the future for the controversial Olympic rowing coach
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The Independent Online

This is the week of Henley Regatta and Jürgen Grobler knows what to expect.

This is the week of Henley Regatta and Jürgen Grobler knows what to expect.

It was different in 1991, when he first arrived to take up his post as Britain's Olympic rowing coach, for he had been schooled in the remorseless, win-at-all-costs East German way. An approach which did not have much room for chaps in boaters and Pimms-fuelled picnics.

"I hadn't been here before but we had had crews over here," he says in an accent as German as a frankfurter, yet looking positively at home on the frightfully English veranda of Henley's venerable Leander Club. "And the coaches came back very fascinated. They showed us some pictures of the nice ladies with the big hats, and said that once in your life you should have a chance to row at Henley. I like the traditions here. It is great. There is a super atmosphere.

"But I must say that when I came over and saw the building of the stands, everything being done at great expense, and I knew a lot of athletes couldn't find the money to support their rowing... it was totally different to what I had been used to in GDR [the German Democratic Republic]. And I was shocked when I saw the British T-shirts at the 1992 Olympics, with the slogan 'Taking part is everything'. I don't think so. Winning is everything."

Grobler has spent his 14 years here marrying a very British sporting tradition with a very East German pursuit of excellence, and now has the matchless record of having coached medal-winning crews at every Olympic Games since 1972. "Except for the 1984 boycott," he corrects me, when I bring up this staggering statistic. "I got a phone call in May that year. We had just been at the training camp and it was so difficult to go to the athletes and tell them. So, so difficult."

The recollection brings a flicker of sadness to an otherwise cheerful face. Even 21 years after the communist boycott of the Los Angeles Games, it pains him to remember the disappointment suffered by his young protégés, who had trained for four years only to be denied their chance of Olympic medals by grandstanding politicians.

He finds it similarly hard to reconcile the perceived success of Britain's rowers in Athens last year, with what he considers to be overall failure.

"Of course we won the gold medal in the coxless fours, but the eight came last. None of the others succeeded. So we had a very hard winter. It is hard to bring people back disappointed and try to motivate them again, to give them some answers, to explain to them why they should carry on, how they could do things better? As chief coach I was in one way happy, because the four performed again, but I really felt for those other guys.

"They had trained hard as well, and as the coach you have to identify with losers as well as winners."

Returning to the coxless four, I ask Grobler the $64,000 question: having coached a crew to Olympic gold in the post-Steve Redgrave era, can he now do it again in the post-Matthew Pinsent era? After all, never mind the Olympics, the World Championships are here next year and thanks to the German, England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) expects.

He smiles. "Our strategy was always to bring the young guys on, although finding good ones to slip into the shoes of Steve and Matthew is a different story. But, the coxless four have again a top boat: Andy Hodge, Peter Reed, Steve Williams and Alex Partridge. And we have some bright new guys in the eight. And the scullers are great potential athletes, really dedicated guys. Sculling is a new challenge for us."

It used to be said that nobody could read a race like Redgrave, but in Williams, the coach thinks he might have a man with similar instincts. "He is the one who makes the right calls, who calms the crew down. But Steve [Redgrave] was still outstanding, and we must use him still. Since 2002 he is vice-president of the federation, and he talks to the young athletes about very practical things. Matthew phones me and asks how things are going. They recognise that they had their time. The new four doesn't take anything away from their big time."

Grobler's big time, meanwhile, shows no sign of ending. Though pushing 60, he has reportedly been courted by the Chinese, who quite reasonably identified him as the one man who could bring them rowing glory in Beijing in 2008. But he has declined their overtures. "I like it here and I like loyalty," he says. "I would not go for more money. People here have supported me through tough times. Of course, this is a performance-based job. If we do not get the results, they might get rid of me. For my part, I am staying. But it is true that the Chinese have asked me. I remember that one of their coaches was with me in GDR watching me every single minute of every day."

Grobler's career in East Germany is indivisible from his career now, unpalatable as that is for those who consider all East German sporting achievements to be discredited by what we now know to have been endemic drug-taking. He grew up in Magdeburg, on the river Elbe. His father was an architect who specialised in rebuilding the bridges that had been destroyed by the Allied bombing during the Second World War, and so I ask him whether he had relatives who disapproved of him leaving for Henley-on-Thames?

He smiles. "No. The Germans are not educated to hate people. I had one uncle who never returned from the war, but all the others came back. My father had an accident so he didn't go to the front line. He spent the war building barracks. The Germans know what they did [in the war], and they still feel guilty."

He was a keen but ordinary athlete, who recognised that his talents lay in instructing others. So off he went to Leipzig, to the country's sports science seminary, and there studied for five years, concentrating on rowing for the last three of them. Seminary is not an inappropriate word, either, given the country's almost religious zeal for sporting achievement.

But that zeal did not distinguish between fair means and foul. Grobler knows that it is impossible to discuss his background in East Germany without mentioning doping, although it irritates him that an era of great attainment has virtually been expunged from sporting history. "To reduce the success of sport in GDR to drugs is totally wrong," he says. "Sport was the Mercedes of GDR, a product of international standard. You wouldn't buy a Trabant here, but you could see our sports people doing well. And there was a huge amount of scientific work done that is still used all over the world. In rowing we studied hydrodynamics many years before anyone else. Already by that time we had developed ways of measuring the resistance of clothes, in track and field too.

"OK, the computers were maybe as big as this club, but things were done that now everybody is doing. It was very political. We had to show that we were better. But there were only 17 million people in the country, so almost every child born was registered, its arm length measured. Could it become a gymnast? A rower? Should it go to special physical education school? And you talk of doping. But doping was not developed in GDR. That came from cycling."

It is admirable that Grobler defends his homeland against the familiar charges, if also disconcerting that he fails to condemn cheating. But maybe that is taken as read. And he denies ever being aware of suspicion towards him after he arrived in Britain. "That is why I am still here. Right from the beginning I have felt respected."

The respect has grown in step with his reputation as an uncompromising taskmaster who achieves results by leaving nothing to chance. Even those things that have to be left to chance in rowing - the water, the wind, human error - he has tried to remove from the equation. And along the way, there have been some volcanic differences of opinion with his protégés. But the esteem in which they hold him has tangible form in the large, three-litre BMW he drives; it was a gift from the coxless four following the Sydney Olympics.

"I never expected it. I was just doing my job. Even now I cannot find the words..." he tells me, his eyes misting at the recollection.

It is the BMW that I duly follow to the gym at Bisham Abbey, to watch Grobler in action. In truth he doesn't do much other than watch as a physiotherapist and then a weight-training instructor put the squad through its paces. But nothing escapes his notice; which men are moving well, which are the most enthusiastic.

It is now 11.30am. The squad have already been on the water, with Grobler on his bike on the towpath with a stopwatch, and they will be back there later in the day. "Our training routine is based on speed," he explains. "We have a predicted gold-medal time, an idea of how the sport will develop for the next four years. Of course, we don't know the conditions of the course. But whatever the conditions, we have seen that our sport develops between 0.5 and one per cent every four years."

It is a punishing regime, I venture, as I watch Williams pumping some weights that I might be able to clean, but could not possibly jerk. Grobler smiles, and nods towards a man and woman in the weights room. "Look," he says. "They are the only ones here who are not rowers. They are from judo. It is good for my guys to know that they are not the only ones working hard."

Clearly, he is a master psychologist as well as a master strategist. He is also, it occurs to me, Britain's most accomplished foreign-born coach.

The Zimbabwean Duncan Fletcher and the Australian Bill Sweetenham have done great things, in cricket and swimming respectively, but neither can boast a record anything like as successful as Grobler's. And as for Sven Goran Eriksson... the England football coach could do worse than spend a morning, as I have, in the German's inspiring company.

"We used to have an advisory group which got all the coaches together," he says, when I ask him whether there is much interaction between sports. "But it does not happen any more and I think it is a very underused resource. I am very interested in other sports, like track and field obviously, but even something like Formula One. I want to know what motivates [Michael] Schumacher. It can't be the money. So what is it?"

We stand, mulling this over, while two of his rowers who have arrived late (with prolific and rather anxious apologies) take their turn with the physio. "The guy on the right," says Grobler, "is 19, a bit skinny, but a very talented rower. The other one is a very good mover and so dedicated, but a bit small. They come from ordinary schools. Before, a lot of the guys came from private schools. But that didn't cover a lot of people. So now we have a Talent Identification programme which goes through the schools identifying the big guys and trying to bring them to rowing."

A Talent Identification programme, I reflect, as I drive away from Bisham Abbey, sounds positively East German, circa 1972. Which, in this instance, can only be a good thing.

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