Is rowing only for the elite?


Last summer we worked on a project with Fulham Reach Boat Club’s young talent, Schuyler Audley-Williams . Our video ‘How Rowing Changed Schuyler’s Life’ was eventually shortlisted at the Charity Film Awards, and his story has since been picked up by the likes of The Times and The Telegraph. The heart of the conversation about Schuyler lies in his journey from home-schooling on a White City council estate to pursuing a full scholarship at Eton College, and how rowing provided the vital stepping stone between the two.  With two British U12 records on the ergo under his belt, fourteen year old Schuyler is looking ahead to possibilities of further education at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. 

This year’s Boat Races are already just around the corner, and the 19th century tradition has shown no signs of dwindling in popularity in recent years. Despite involving many individual athletes with international rowing experience from across the globe, the race has no actual involvement of the national squad as its own entity and at its core is simply a varsity sporting event. Yet upwards of 250,000 onlookers line the banks of the Tideway in London each year, with a further 7 million staying tuned via the widespread media coverage. Steeped in history, the event draws crowds from both inside and outside the rowing community, and is no doubt a fantastic opportunity to showcase the best of our sport. 

The Boat Race demonstrates that with a lot of hard work and dedication, juggling a highly rigorous academic schedule at one of the world’s top universities with the training load of an elite athlete is achievable. But there’s the problem: ‘elite’. The description elite doesn’t only speak to athletic ability here, but in many ways to the reputation of the sport as a whole.

The Harvard-Yale Boat Race is the American equivalent of the Oxford-Cambridge race, and in the same way that university rowing was introduced in the UK at Oxford, college rowing in the states was born out of this Harvard-Yale matchup. The race is in fact the oldest collegiate athletic competition in the US following it’s first edition in 1852. While many more universities have followed suit in introducing rowing over the past century, the schools with the foundations in rowing remain some of the most competitive squads and the sport is still somewhat tied to them, at least from the perspective of those with minimal involvement in rowing. 

Oxbridge are constantly wrapped in accusations of elitism and discrimination in their admissions procedures, alongside their Ivy League counterparts from across the pond. Whether there is truth in these accusations is far beyond the scope of what we feel qualified to discuss, but it is undoubtedly a problem that these world-class academic institutions have not yet managed to shake the associations with elitism rooted in their history. To a certain extent, the discussion as to whether they discriminate is neither here nor there if there are people that feel discouraged from applying in the first place. It seems that the real inequality in opportunity starts long before admissions decisions.  

It’s been a challenge within the rowing community for some time now to debunk the myth that the culture in the sport is of elitism and exclusivity. People who participate in rowing will tell you that the atmosphere is not of elitism at all. Rowers simply love to train and love the sport. However, issues arise in the relatively limited media coverage in comparison to more popular sports like football or rugby. To many, rowing beyond the Olympics and World Championships is about dress codes stricter than Royal Ascot at Henley Royal Regatta. They perhaps don’t get the glimpse of the hundreds of spectators dipping their feet in the water as they watch for free from the bank. Or more importantly, the hours of everyday training that rowers put in day in and day out, in the gym and on the water. There’s very little glamour in that. 

The 2012 Boat Race will long be remembered after Trenton Oldfield swam in front of the crews, bringing the race to a halt. He stated that he had done this as “a protest against inequalities in British society, government cuts, reductions in civil liberties and a culture of elitism.” And while maybe there was truth in these ideas going back many years, the oarsmen in the race he interrupted hailed from all over the world and earned their seats through years of gruelling dedication to the sport. Oldfield’s claims no longer rung true when he devastated the hopes of those athletes, and with consistent progression, they ring even less true today.  Take a look at the launch of the Future Blues campaign last year: the Boat Race are completely on board with the view that we should be increasing access to the sport and are making a firm effort to do so.

“I’d never rowed before, but it just seemed rather elite because that’s all the coverage that you receive from the media,” said Schuyler when we interviewed him last summer.  “But it turned out to be just a very down-to-earth sport. Rowing for me has become this kind-of… addiction.”

The introduction of the Power8 Sprints by British Rowing is an excellent initiative to bring rowing to a wider audience and expand the view of the sport, but there’s still a long way to go, and it’s not limited to media representation. The fact that Schuyler was able to get on the water and discover the openness of the rowing community was a big step in itself. 

Equipment is expensive, and at junior level, many of the big names include the likes of famous public schools Eton and Westminster. Rowing neither feels nor is accessible enough to kids in the state-school sector just yet. This isn’t a criticism of the culture in the community as a whole, and this isn’t to say that it’s impossible to be successful if you don’t come from a privileged background. Some of the national squad’s most successful athletes including Moe Sbihi MBE, Mark Hunter MBE and Sir Steve Redgrave CBE came from comprehensive schools. Young athletes may progress through programmes like GB World Class Start, or simply through rowing at their local club. Ireland's O'Donovon brothers of Skibbereen Rowing Club are a shining example of success on the world stage without state-of-the-art facilities behind them. 

There are a huge number of clubs across the UK (and beyond) that provide access to rowing for people from all walks of life. Clubs are successful simply through a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, combined with the common desire to put in the hours of training required. Not through any kind of internal elitism. 

But there’s no denying that rowing facilities remain extremely expensive and much more accessible to young people at private schools- take the facilities now available to Schuyler at Eton College. While it’s true that rowing club membership fees are often much more affordable than a standard gym membership, good quality racing boats and the maintenance of such equipment is a significant financial undertaking for any club. In the same way, we can't assume that club membership is realistically affordable for all. Burlington Danes Academy are a school who now offer rowing thanks to Fulham Reach Boat Club. Around 70% of their students are on free school meals. 

This isn’t just a problem exclusive to rowing: more than half of medallists for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics were privately educated, despite only making up 7% of the population. Encouraging young people to participate in sport of any kind is key, and the ease of access to participation in rowing or otherwise is generally much greater at a school with readily available facilities. Back in 2014, 10% of schools registered with British Rowing were from the state sector, with the remaining 90% from the private school sector. This doesn’t account for all of the fantastic clubs entering junior athletes, but stats like that do indicate a problem, especially in the context of the tiny percentage of schools nationally that are independent. The argument isn't that rowing isn't now available to the majority, it's only that there is still a significant inequality in opportunity, and thus more work to be done. 

To quote Schuyler in conversation with The Telegraph: “There wasn’t much diversity in the outreach for rowing. So it never seemed like something I would or could do. I think that’s because, coming from my background, there is not as much of an outreach for it.”

This brings us back to the idea that an outward stigma about the elitist nature of rowing is still present and a crucial initial barrier to participation. There are a variety of excellent programmes worldwide aimed at increasing access to the sport. Close to home, Fulham Reach Boat Club and London Youth Rowing continue to make incredible progress in providing access to rowing for children in London irrespective of background. Organisations like RowUK and B-Row are pursuing the same goal in other parts of the country. Community Rowing, Inc. have been increasing access to rowing in Boston, Massachusetts since 1985, while Row New York have a strong focus on the ties between rowing and academic success. Yale University even have their own Yale Community Rowing Program. Programmes like these and many more we haven't mentioned are crucial in combatting the elitist image that rowing is still shrouded by, alongside the many rowing clubs who offer the sport in their communities. 

The head of the river races that start this week follow the same Championship Course as The Boat Race, only raced in the reverse direction. Head of the River entries are capped at 400 crews, bringing up to 3,600 competitors onto the river at once, as each entry races in eights just the same as at the varsity showdown. They’re a celebration of national rowing, and particularly of the many clubs that are continuing to provide rowing in every corner of the country. We don’t expect to see 7 million following our live stream on the day, but we hope that by providing a platform to watch the upcoming races on, we can begin to create a more accessible, no-frills view of the sport at all levels. The Boat Race is no less than a fantastic event, and the heads of the rivers should be recognised in that same level of regard. We believe the level of coverage of these events should reflect that. 

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