They talked for months on end about the race of the century that came in the Olympic swimming pool last Monday night, but rowing is different. Rowing is one long struggle against yourself, and your capacity to hurt, profitably.
They talked for months on end about the race of the century that came in the Olympic swimming pool last Monday night, but rowing is different. Rowing is one long struggle against yourself, and your capacity to hurt, profitably. And here on the lake in the hollow of sun-scoured hills we saw yesterday the unfolding of a race that on Saturday promises to take eight men - four British, four Canadian - to limits of pain they may never have known before.
The possibility is that it will not be the race of the century, but of eternity. In the last few strokes, that is. When your eyes blur and your lungs are on fire.
You do not have to reach for any sense of such extremities because the leader of the British four, Matthew Pinsent, has shown us how it is, and what it takes, so many times before.
Pinsent agrees that his pursuit of a fourth Olympic gold has already this year taken him into terrain of doubt and frustration he never knew in his now legendary partnership with the retired Sir Steve Redgrave.
Redgrave, the introvert who dropped out of school, and Pinsent, of Eton and Oxford, were as inevitable as a force of nature when they swept to gold together in Barcelona and Atlanta, and, with James Cracknell and Tim Foster, in Sydney four years ago. But here in Greece, Pinsent, Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams are not in the inevitability business.
They are fighting on the edge against the Canadian crew of Cameron Baerg, Tom Herschmiller, Jake Wetzel and Barney Williams, who have known little of the British trauma that came when their coach, Jürgen Grobler, decided to ransack a new British four and abort the Pinsent-Cracknell pairs combination that followed, unconvincingly, Redgrave's retirement.
Yesterday, as Pinsent's men won their semi-final, 0.24sec faster than the Canadians did theirs, when cruising a length clear of the dangerous Australians and Italians, the men who were thrown out of the four, Toby Garbett and Rick Dunn, failed by half a second to make their own final.
Dunn, who in his first bitterness said that contemplating Pinsent and Cracknell in his old boat was like seeing your girlfriend sleeping with your best friend, made a gesture of despair - and said, later: "We didn't come here to come against Matthew and James - we came to compete against the world, and we gave it a good crack. We're proud of what we have achieved this season."
Here, it is easy to see, just below the surface of the wind-rippled water, great passion lurks and in two days' time the cause of Britain's troubled, desperately underachieving Olympic campaign will hinge on the outcome of the duel with an increasingly impressive Canadian unit.
After coming home ahead of New Zealand and Poland in 5min 50.44sec over the 2,000 metres course, the British bow, Williams, declared: "It is a pretty close situation with the Canadians - we have to expect it to be stroke for stroke in the final."
Stroke for stroke trips off the tongue. But then so does hell on earth or moment of truth, and here early on Saturday afternoon they will no doubt define the action accurately enough.
After the semi-final, Cracknell said: "This was an important experience - with all that's gone on with injuries, this race doubled the number of races we have had as a unit. Maybe the speed and aggression we had was a good reflection of our training work. Anyway, we'll see on Friday."
Pinsent was cool but satisfied. "We are now back where we want to be and we just have to focus everything on the boat. There is a good feeling now - and that's what you do all the work for, getting this sense that in the end you will have it right."
Some time ago, Pinsent anticipated another Olympic final, when he is required to look at himself in the most strenuous way, saying: "So we line up the boat so it points straight down the course towards the finish 2,000m away, glance at the opposition, do a final check on the oar, the shell, the rigger and allow our minds to run over the plan one final time. Then, with butterflies raging in our stomachs, we go..."
Redgrave, the master of stealing such moments and making them his own forever, watched yesterday's semi-final with an inscrutable expression. He has already delivered one motivating speech, but confessed that having been so long out of a boat, and knowing the pain and the effort these men have put in, he did so not without a slight feeling of impertinence.
He says: "There are question marks against them, more than against us in Sydney four years ago, but the situation is not as bad as people have made it out to be. There has been a lot of turmoil but most of it, like injuries, has been out of their control. Everyone knows that if they row to the best of their ability they will win."
The word from the British compound in the Olympic Village is that no one will be more anxious for the success of Pinsent's men that Paula Radcliffe, who a little more than 24 hours later will carry the nation's hopes on the ancient marathon course. A victory for the rowers, she reckons, will lower the pressure of expectation. Maybe, but for the men on the water there will be no past or no future. Only a race that at some point, no doubt, will provoke the desperate thought that it will never end.Reuse content