Clubs across the UK are currently gearing up for WEHORR, with only three days to go until the premier event of the winter racing calendar for women. It’s been a pretty devastating winter in terms of weather for the rowing community, and the completion of this weekend’s racing will no doubt feel like a much-welcomed step towards the summer. The peak of the summer racing calendar for athletes of all ages will likely come on the Henley course, but this year especially the discussion is high as to whether that should be at Henley Royal or two weeks prior at Henley Women’s.
There are fair arguments in support of the latter. You’d be hard pressed to find an attendee of the women’s regatta who would do less than sing its praises: a great atmosphere, exciting racing and a wonderful celebration of women’s rowing, no doubt.
The real danger that lies ahead is in Henley Women’s growing into a ‘second rate’ event. At present, HWR is held over the same weekend as Marlow Regatta at Dorney Lake which many men’s crews use as an opportunity for race preparation and pre-qualification for the upcoming Henley Royal. Protecting HWR would require dedication to securing it as the first-class event for women’s’ rowing in its own right and not a stepping stone to HRR like Marlow is now if more women's events are to be introduced at HRR.
First held in 1988, it’s certainly young compared to Henley Royal which was first raced in 1839- nearing two centuries ago. There is much history and tradition at the core of HRR so with respect to age alone, it would be wildly unreasonable to expect HWR to hold the same sense of prestige that HRR does while still in its early stages of growth. It needs time to develop its unique history and traditions, but time isn’t the only limiting factor in it holding its own in the calendar. It’s lacking in its reduced course length and the subsequent exclusion of the blue and white tents, enclosures, crowds and close connection to the town itself that are at the heart of what make HRR such a special event. The shortened course is for logistics and safety alone, but some feel it would benefit greatly if the organisers were allowed to utilise the full Henley stretch.
When it was introduced, the purpose of the women’s regatta was to make up for the absence of any women’s events at HRR, so it is understandable that some find it strange that it exists at all when there are now women’s events in the HRR programme, especially to the younger generation who have only known HRR as it is now.
It’s worth highlighting how recent the introduction of women’s events at Henley is. The women’s single sculls event- now the Princess Royal- was only introduced in 1993. It was another five years until a second invitational women’s category was introduced and the Remenham was not the open event we know it as now until the year 2000. This isn’t to argue that any of this was hugely out of line with the general state of women’s rowing at the time. Leander Club only began to admit female members in 1998. Women’s rowing was first incorporated into the world championships in 1974 and later introduced as a 1000m Olympic event at the 1976 Games, extending to the full two kilometre course in 1988. Women’s rowing has come an awfully long way in the last fifty years- people had to fight for its growth and simply inclusion until very recently and will continue to do so into the future.
The growth of women’s rowing has not only been recent but extraordinarily fast and the argument that the numbers in women’s rowing are not yet adequate to warrant equal events is long outdated. Entries at WEHORR increased tenfold from 1977 to 2003, with the event this weekend hosting a 318-strong start list. Back in 2018, the most recent year in which both the men’s and women’s heads went ahead, WEHORR had 300 finishers to HORR’s 302. Women made up more than half of university student entries only a few weeks ago at BUCS Head, while British Rowing membership statistics hit a 48:52 split long back in 2012/3. The numbers are already there.
The idea that the standard of women’s rowing is lacking is equally strange. At the most recent Olympics in Rio, the British men’s squad took home two gold medals while the women’s squad took one gold and two silvers. Last year’s U23 World Championships in Sarasota, a hugely exciting display of the future rowing talent in this country, saw a best-ever performance for GB as they topped the medal table. The men’s and women’s halves of the squad took three gold medals and one silver medal apiece.
Women are performing at the highest levels in the sport, although the pathway in may differ and the rate of development may be at a different pace. But what can we expect when at present 352 boys have the chance to race at Henley driving them through their junior careers as either budding scullers or sweepers, while junior girls know that only 80 scullers will have that opportunity? The importance isn’t in events merely existing but in athlete numbers too. This notion is being duly led by the International Olympic Committee who approved the change towards gender parity for the upcoming Games in Tokyo which will see equal events and athlete numbers contesting for medals. This complemented a concurrent decision by FISA to make their world championship programmes equal.
It’s not all plain sailing though. The School’s Head of the River came under heavy criticism last year after a controversial decision was made allowing J15 boys’ eights to race but not girls’. The significance in that decision lay far from whether there was any substance in the argument that J15 boys would be more competent to race and marshal in challenging conditions than their female counterparts. Regardless of the lack of reasoning this held for many, it boils down to a decision being made that sent a very damaging, backwards message out to young women. By the age of 14, the dropout rate across sport is twice as high for girls than boys, owing to a number of factors including social stigma. It is the responsibility of the organisers of junior rowing events to foster both junior men’s and women’s development and the message that decision sent had little place in modern day sport.
To foster women’s rowing in this country from the bottom up, young women need to feel like they have equal opportunities in the sport. Arguing that it’s unfair Henley Women’s Regatta still exists doesn’t make a lot of sense if you now consider how rapidly women’s rowing has grown and the lack of space in the Henley Royal programme at present. It may be easy to forget that only four years ago, the women’s events at HRR were still outnumbered in men’s events 4:1, and even with the brilliant new introduction of the student eights event, 16 women’s eights will have the chance to race past the enclosures this summer compared to the 116 men’s eights. Abolishing HWR because there are now women competing at HRR would only extinguish a large chunk of high calibre racing for women in the domestic calendar and could have potentially catastrophic knock-on effects to the detriment of the sport.
It took just shy of a century before a women’s Boat Race was introduced to match the men’s event, with the move to the Tideway in 2015 coming another 88 years after the initial introduction of the women’s event. The 2021 introduction of junior and club women’s eights at Henley is clearly a huge step in the right direction. While change is certainly present, it is still slow in the eyes of many. With regard to the Henley regattas, there is definitely a sense that significant change is imminent.
Even with the announcement of the six-day regatta at Henley Royal in future years, adding events- women’s or otherwise (further club or university sculling events certainly deserve consideration) would necessitate cuts in existing areas of the programme. Henley has a certain reputation for a display of rowing at the elite level, so some would undoubtedly welcome cuts to the qualification numbers in the larger events which have seen a handful of crews qualify automatically in recent years. Of course, those whose qualification spots would be cut are less likely to support this change.
This welcomes an idea that has been kicking around the rowing community for a while now that Henley Women’s Regatta could be reinstated as an entirely new event if a time came when Henley Royal could provide equal men’s and women’s events. This could be more focussed as a development regatta for both women and men, redirecting the shorter course and the positive atmosphere that already make HWR the great event it is towards a more grassroots level of the sport for younger or less experienced athletes. What might be drawbacks to the current HWR for the top tier of athletes could be benefits to the development athletes and allow them to get their first taste of the Henley course without the huge scale and large crowds at Henley Royal. A key difference already between HRR and HWR is the greater number of junior events at the latter, which could be grown in a different direction to allow for J16 boys to try the Henley course like the girls are able to already thanks to HWR.
It’s hard to know what the future holds for Henley Women’s Regatta. There is a lot of nudging- much of which has been rewarded- for the introduction of further women’s events at Henley Royal, yet a lot of support in favour of HWR, too. But it’s clear to see, we can’t have our cake and eat it. Do we protect Henley Women’s Regatta, allowing it to grow the prestige Henley Royal is renowned for without pushing to introduce new events at HRR? Or do we continue to strive for an equal number of men’s and women’s events at Henley Royal Regatta so that in an inevitably bittersweet way, Henley Women’s would be made redundant? Could Henley Women’s be transformed into an entirely new development event in years to come? Could we have equal events at HRR while still retaining the value of HWR, it remaining to honour the reason it was started in the first place?
Let us know below.