Thunder and lightning called off rowing at Shunyi today, causing semi-finals for three British lightweight crews to be postponed until Friday. There are high hopes that all of them will join the eight crews already lined up for finals tomorrow or on Sunday.
The double scullers Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter are one of the main gold medal hopes. The light four are world champions and seem to have found the form they lacked through most of this year. The double scullers Hester Goodsell and Helen Casey are the most vulnerable, but they are certainly not a write-off.
The feeling in the British camp is that the women’s quad, who’s final is on Sunday, are up for making history as the first British women’s crew to win Olympic gold. Annie Vernon, Debbie Flood, Fran Houghton and Katherine Grainger are certainly as well prepared as they ever could be. They have been world champions for three years, have suffered a defeat and some dodgy moments this summer, but have come here focussed and fired up. They won their heat to progress straight to the final, as did their main rivals, China, but long ago they learned the lesson of not focussing on one foe to the exclusion of others who may have a go. They have power, experience, technique and style. There is nothing else to ask of them except that they do the business.
Katherine Grainger, the stroke, is the most accomplished British oarswoman ever, having won silver medals at the Sydney and Athens games and four senior world titles. The Glaswegian began rowing in 1993 at Edinburgh University and won her first world title in the under-23 category in 1997. Her Olympic medals are in the quad in Sydney and the pair in Athens, and she returned to the stroke seat of the quad in 2005. The boat had its first change when Sarah Winckless came in for Rebecca Romero in 2006 after Romero went off to be a cyclist. The young and talented Annie Vernon came into the bow seat in 2007 when Winckless took time out for medical reasons. Debbie Flood, once a junior judo international and county cross shot putter, and Fran Houghton retained their seats from the 2004 crew.
This year their fortunes have been mixed. They won the first world cup, beating two Chinese crews in the process, but were bested by one three weeks later. The Chinese are very fast, and everyone knows that Grainger’s boat will have to stay with them in order to beat them. There will be no playing around. Until now, Germany has won this event since it was introduced in 1976, when boats then carried a cox. The present German crew is dangerous, containing Kathrin Boron who has four consecutive Olympic golds and would dearly love to get a fifth to match the Redgrave standard. But she and her crewmates have not hit the spot this year and, with a fair wind, Grainger will stop her.
The only problem for all the crews has been lack of racing opportunities. The event was cancelled at the third world cup because of lack of entries, and the British crew went off to Marlow regatta to race against men. So last Sunday’s heat was their first proper race since early June, and this Sunday’s will - perhaps - be their last.
They will follow a detailed programme of everything they eat, drink and do from their waking moment on Sunday, meticulously worked out by their coach Paul Thompson. “We’re absolutely preparing for a very, very close race, so mentally we’re staying focused on that, making sure that, whatever happens as the race unfolds, we’ll be very positive,” Grainger said yesterday.
Purchase and Hunter’s golden shot depends on success in the semi-final tomorrow. The men’s four are the third gold-standard crew, due to prove it or otherwise on Saturday.