Olympics: Britain’s rowers a team divided amid aftershock of abysmal Tokyo performances

Team GB’s worst rowing results in more than 40 years have raised questions over the departure of legendary but controversial coach Jurgen Grobler

Paul Eddison
Friday 30 July 2021 16:44
Boost for Great Britain in final rowing event as men’s eight team take bronze

Great Britain’s rowers endured their worst Olympics in more than 40 years and the recriminations began in earnest over whether the departure of legendary coach Jurgen Grobler was responsible or if the German’s methods belong in a bygone era.

Josh Bugajski, who was part of the men’s eight that had just won one of two British medals at the Sea Forest Waterway, a bronze, laid bare the depths to which Grobler pushed his charges, claiming that he “destroyed the souls” of some of his rowers.

It was a remarkable outburst that demonstrated the human cost that came with Britain’s success over the past four decades and raised far-reaching questions of where athlete welfare sits in the pursuit of medals.

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Not since 1980 have GB come away from an Olympics without a rowing gold medal but this was a regatta of near-misses with a scarcely believable six fourth-places, in addition to one silver and one bronze.

And while many will see a direct correlation with Grobler’s decision to step down in 2020, having coached 20 Olympic champions to a total of 33 gold medals in 28 years, Bugajski was jubilant at his departure.

He said: “I’m going to be brave and say something the crew don’t want me to say. I popped a bottle of champagne when Jurgen retired. I had three very dark years under him, I’d be a coward not to say on behalf of the guys who are back home and didn’t make it onto the team and that got the darker side of Jurgen.

“Well done to them for putting up with what we put up with. We were made to jump through a lot of hoops that some people weren’t made to jump through. We suffered as a result, both mentally and physically.

“It’s the end of an era for British rowing but it’s the start of a much better era.

“I will admit [Jurgen] is a good coach to some people but there were people that he seemed to take a disliking to and what he did to them was destroy them, destroy their soul, destroy everything.

“He had complete power. If you didn’t get selected for a boat, your funding is never going to go up. I was pretty much broke for a year, my relationships suffered, my friendships suffered. Everything suffered, I’m very thankful to have a wonderful fiancée and family back home who have looked after me whenever they can.”

Bugajski’s views are not shared by all, or even a majority, of those on the team in Tokyo, but will raise questions over the environment within British rowing.

Mohamed Sbihi reacts to winning bronze for Team GB

The split in views within the camp was striking, with Grobler still on a WhatsApp group with the eight and having sent them a good luck message before their race, which was live on Eurosport and discovery+.

Having finished top of the rowing medal table at the last three Olympics, Britain finished 14th here, the worst result since Munich in 1972 when they did not win a medal.

The streak of five successive Olympic titles in the “Golden Boat”, the men’s four, came to an end in dramatic circumstances as the British crew finished fourth, losing control and almost crashing into the Italians as they pushed themselves to, and beyond, the limit.

James Cracknell won two gold medals in the four and questioned whether the huge investment from UK Sport was getting the expected return.

He told the BBC: “We got three gold, two silver in Rio. We come away from Tokyo, £27m of investment in British rowing, with one silver and one bronze.

“At a time when the national budget is under pressure from so many different areas, is that a good return on investment?”

Sir Steve Redgrave, meanwhile, was in Tokyo as performance director for China, overseeing their second Olympic rowing gold medal.

And he called into question the selection methods employed by performance director Brendan Purcell.

He said: “If you bring in systems and selection panels like we had in the Seventies and Eighties, you must expect results that we had in the Seventies and Eighties.

“We changed our system in the last year and suddenly from being one of the best nations, we are down the other end.”

Purcell, who took over from Sir David Tanner in 2018, admitted that the team had underperformed on the medal table.

Jurgen Grobler’s methods were not supported by all in the GB rowing set-up

And while he acknowledged that British rowing needs to strike a better balance between welfare and the pursuit of excellence, he refused to criticise Grobler’s methods.

Purcell said: “We had a four-medal target, we didn’t meet that target. We didn’t meet our own expectations – we can’t hide from that.

“UK Sport will be sitting down with us pretty soon, I am sure, because we didn’t meet our target. We are accountable for that funding, and I won’t be sleeping well until we get back on top of things.

“Reality is, a performance environment needs to achieve exceptional performances and for people to explore their limits, it needs a balance between support and challenge. For every individual that is a difficult mix to find. Some people thrive on the challenge every day, some people don’t.

“One of the things we have to get a bit better at is that we didn’t always get that balance quite right.

“If you want to be the world’s best, and they will go away and be frustrated, disappointed, heartbroken, you can’t just go through the motions, you will have to go beyond where your limits are and sometimes that will mean someone helping to nudge you when you think you can’t do any more.”

The aftershocks of this regatta will be felt for a long time within British rowing. It will not be easy to heal the schism within the team over Grobler’s methods.

Bugajski claimed it was the start of a new and better era. That may well be true from an athlete welfare perspective, even if it may come at the cost of medal success.

The question for those involved is whether that is a cost they are willing to pay.

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