Rowing: What happens now for Britain's Olympic squad?

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The Independent Online

How will rowing survive without Matthew Pinsent? If you listen to the man himself, then the picture is less bleak than first thought. "We won four Olympic medals in Athens, one of them gold, from a national base of 30,000 rowers. Rowing is very capable of producing more medallists. There's more out there than you think."

How will rowing survive without Matthew Pinsent? If you listen to the man himself, then the picture is less bleak than first thought. "We won four Olympic medals in Athens, one of them gold, from a national base of 30,000 rowers. Rowing is very capable of producing more medallists. There's more out there than you think."

Behind the star quality that Pinsent and James Cracknell, who is taking a year out to run marathons and other pursuits, have brought to the world of rowing in the past eight years, there are some talented and hungry athletes stepping up to occupy their seats. They are in a sport which has produced Olympic medals for Britain continuously since 1984, including gold in six consecutive games. Seventeen oarsmen and two coxswains have at least one gold medal to hang round their necks.

David Tanner, the international rowing manager, set his target for the Beijing Olympics as three medals yesterday, while declaring that 2005 will be a year for building. He is betting on the women's team converting one of their two silvers and a bronze to gold in 2008 because six of his eight Athens medallists are continuing, although Frances Houghton will not be in contention next year.

He has high hopes of the relatively young men's sculling team if they follow the women's team and develop the ability to succeed in any combination in crew boats. Tanner also predicts that interest in sculling (those who can manage two oars at once) will weaken choice in the men's sweep-oar team as a result of coach Jurgen Grobler's policy of recognising that status ranks equally with rowing.

Winning Olympic medals is not getting easier. In Athens sixteen nations shared the 18 medals available in open men's events, the lesson being that the big rowing countries no longer take the lion's share. The only British men's crew to reach an Athens final was the coxless four. At lower levels, there is currently little to write home about at the under-23 and junior levels. Tanner is wise, therefore, not to raise the bar. His Athens target was three medals, one of them gold. He is cautious not to give his backers - UK Sport, the lottery and the sponsors - unrealistic expectations.

There are, however, some areas where rapid progress is possible. Women's international rowing is dragging its feet in that entries in world cups and world championships are low.

Men's lightweight rowing has sunk to a diabolical level while being ripe for revival. Britain used to lead the world in lightweight rowing, partly fuelled by intensive duels between different centres. Steps are being taken to kick-start this again, with a national coach appointment pending.

Among the men, the significant development is the likely reversal of the statistic that the Athens team included only one gold medallist from the relative youngsters of the Sydney 2000 eight (and he was reserve). Nothing to show for their efforts is bringing the Athens eight back for more.

So don't expect a great year at the 2005 world championships, but do expect a flurry of activity and jostling for notice. Members of the eight apart, if Alex Partridge comes back to full fitness, if Cracknell trades running shoes for the oar again and if Olympic champion Steve Williams continues to inspire with his strength and technical ability then a star men's crew for 2006 is on the cards. Then 2008 may take care of itself.

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