Rowing in time

A look into rowing over the years, including Canada's rise, fall, and new hope for Beijing.

Rowing traces back to 490 BC, as a means of travel for invading armies


Above, rowing is seen in one of its earliest forms- a key ingredient in ancient battle. Above, invading ships approach the walled city of Londonderry, Ireland, 1689. ((Hulton Archive/Getty Images) )


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In 490 BC, Persian ships carried more than 20,000 soldiers to Schinias Beach— an invasion force to face 10,000 Athenian men in what would be known as the Battle of Marathon. The Greeks routed the Persians in that battle, and later took the battle to the sea, using their triremes— a galley with three banks of oars powered by rowers— to beat back the Persian armies. That battle is a distant echo of rowing's long history. There is evidence to suggest the Phoenicians and Egyptians raced barges on the Nile as early as 2500 BC.

During the fifth century BC the Greeks made an important technical innovation by fixing the oar to a fulcrum while the Romans exploited the power and efficiency provided by dozens of captive slaves pulling together to the beat of a drum— an early example of sport science or management consulting, take your pick. Those ancient principles are still evident in rowing sculls and coxed boats.

Racing on the Thames
Oxford and Cambridge university teams have been battling it out on the River Thames since 1829. ((Ian Walton/Getty Images) )
Modern rowing equipment and regattas originated in England. The earliest sculling race took place on the Thames River in 1715, organized by a popular Irish actor named Thomas Doggett in appreciation of the oarsmen who used to ferry him back and forth across the river.

As the British began emigrating to the New World, they brought rowing with them, introducing it to the colonies in the early part of the 19th century. In fact, the oldest continuous sporting event in North America is the Quidi Vidi Lake regatta near St. John's, Nfld., which began in 1818. Canadians began to assert their prominence in rowing, competing in regattas in Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and other large centres.

Amateur equals elitist?

By the 1890s, a growing rift between professional and amateur rowers led to a growth of amateur rowing clubs in North America, Europe and Canada. In 1880, several clubs formed the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen that coordinated and regulated the sport. One of the main rules was that members couldn't row or do manual labour for a living because it wasn't in keeping with the true amateur spirit— a development that would, fairly or unfairly, associate rowing with elitism. Rowing was not held at the 1896 Olympics in Athens due to poor weather conditions, but made it on to the Olympic program in Paris in 1900.

Eight for Eights

In the first half of the century, Canadian rowers produced just seven medals, none gold. Not surprisingly, maritime nations such as Great Britain, Germany, Denmark and the U.S. spread the medals fairly evenly except in one class: beginning with the 1920 Games at Antwerp, Americans captured gold in the men's eights— rowing's showcase event— over eight successive Olympics.

In 1956, Canada finally struck rowing gold in the coxless fours, crewed by members of the famed UBC Rowing Club on the west coast and coached by one of Canada's rowing legends, Frank Read. At the same Olympics Canada lost the eights by half a length to the Americans. The close loss helped resurrect Canada's faltering rowing reputation in the modern era. Four years later in Rome, Read coached the UBC eights to another second-place finish.

Hungerford and Jackson

Canada's most unlikely rowing gold came at the 1964 Tokyo Games. An intimate kind of teamwork is usually essential to rowing, but George Hungerford and Roger Jackson had never raced with each other. They only went as reserves for the men's eight, and to make up for not being regulars, they were allowed to enter the coxless pairs event. They had six weeks to get acquainted. And find a boat.

They borrowed a boat from the University of Washington. Whether it was coincidence or destiny, it was the same shell that American rowers James Fifer and Duvall Hecht rowed to gold in 1956. Hungerford and Jackson were long shots, so much so that no Canadian journalist showed up to cover their races. Who could blame them? Did we mention Hungerford was getting over a bout of mononucleosis?

Nevertheless, not only would the two young men hang on to win the gold medal race by .54 seconds, they would also win Canada's only gold at Tokyo.

Awesome Oarsmen

Two of the great rowers of the past century were Vyacheslav Ivanov of the Soviet Union (1956-1964) and Pertti Karppinen of Finland (1976-1984). Each won three straight gold in the Single Sculls. Ivanov actually lost consciousness during his 1960 defence of his Olympic medal, but had enough of a lead that he was able to recover and finish in first. Karppinen was a six-foot seven-inch fireman who often powered past his opponents in the final stretch.

Britain's Stephen Redgrave won nine gold medals in team and individual events, including gold in five straight Olympics. At Sydney he became only the second athlete to do so, joining Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich who managed six gold medals over six games from 1932 to 1960.

The Montreal Games in 1976 finally saw women gain entrance to the sport. The competition turned out to be lopsided, with East Germany winning gold in four of the six events, and two silvers. In the 1976 and boycott-weakened 1980 Games, East Germans almost swept the competition.

Of the 14 rowing events in 1980, they won 11 and earned medals in all of them. Impressive though it was, their performance was shrouded in suspicion that was later confirmed as details of systematic doping programs slowly emerged. It wouldn't be until the 1992 Barcelona Games, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the doping schemes were exposed, that some semblance of parity returned to the sport.

The Canadians are back

Canada's Silken Laumann, who won three Olympic medals, was involved in a horrific rowing accident while training for the 1992 Olympic Games. She overcame serious injury and later captured a bronze medal. (Mike Powell/Getty Images)
Barcelona was also a coming out party for Canadian rowers as they won four gold and a bronze, including a sweep of the men's and women's eights. It was a surprisingly strong showing which carried over into six more medals in Atlanta four years later.

Leading the way were partners Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, who each won three gold and one bronze over the span of the two Olympics, along with the great Silken Laumann, who repeatedly overcame adversity to win three medals in her Olympic career.

But 2000 brought disappointment. Despite being contenders for as many as four medals, only the women's eight came away with anything, and that was bronze.

To get back on track for Athens 2004, Rowing Canada tried to learn from its own history. Australian Brian Richardson, who coached the team from 1993 to 1996, was rehired after his successful stint helping his home country triumph in Sydney. Also brought back to coach the men was Mike Spracklen, the British coach who worked with Laumann and the men's eight from 1990 to 1992.

Despite coaching changes, however, Canada's results in Athens were fraught with disappointment. With high hopes for three to five medals, the team headed home with just one podium finish, thanks to a silver medal earned by the men's four (Cam Baerg, Jake Wetzel, Tom Herschmiller and Barney Williams).

The race that left many Canadians shaking their heads involved the men's eight. Undefeated for two years before the Olympics, the Canadian boat finished in fifth place, crossing the line after the U.S. (gold), the Netherlands (silver), Australia (bronze) and Germany.

Approaching Beijing four years later, the tide may be turning. Fresh off a gold medal victory at the 2007 world championships in Germany, Canada's men's eight proved to the world they're still a force to beat. Now one of the country's best chances for an Olympic medal, the men's eight is joined by four other Canadian contingents competing in the Games. They include the women's pair, women's quad, lightweight women's double and lightweight men's quad.

The Paris Four and Ned Hanlan

Canada made a huge leap in international rowing stature when a crew of four New Brunswickers, travelled to Paris in 1867 for its International Exposition. The "Paris Four," as they came to be known, defeated the best European crews at the time, including one from London and one from Oxford University. The victory over the English crews was especially sweet because it was also a symbolic win for the upstart "colonials" and their unfashionable boats and appearance. The Paris Four remained undefeated for the next couple of years but more than that, they helped establish Canada's reputation as a credible rowing nation.

By then, rowing had become the most popular sport in the world, and it also produced Canada's first sporting superstar: Ned Hanlan, one of the most famous athletes in the world in the 19th century. Hanlan was the son of poor Irish immigrants who settled on the Toronto Islands where his father, John Hanlan, built a hotel. (The present-day Hanlan's Point on the islands is actually named after the hotel, not for Ned's rowing.)

Hanlan dominated rowing races throughout northeastern Canada and the U.S., amassing an astonishing career record of 344 wins and six losses from the early 1870s to the mid-1880s. He was world champion in the single sculls six times.         Silken Laumann Canada won so many medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that it wasn't exactly headline news when Silken Laumann won a bronze medal with her sister Daniele in double sculls. But the Mississauga, Ont. native was a household name in Canada and the world's top single sculls rower when the Barcelona Games were on the horizon eight years later. But after her shell was rammed by a German boat at an event just 73 days before the Olympics, few thought she'd ever race again, let alone compete in Barcelona. A piece of wood ripped through he lower right leg, and Laumann had such extensive damage doctors told her she'd need six months to recover.

After five operations, Laumann was in Barcelona, walking with a cane, and hoping to at least beat one other rower. While she lost to Elizabeth Lipa of Romania (a seven-time medallist), Laumann would win the bronze. Her story of overcoming a devastating injury became a part of Olympic lore and helped motivate her rowing teammates to four gold medals in Barcelona, a best for Canada.

Laumann's comeback was a tremendous achievement, and she continued the accomplishment by earning a silver at Atlanta in 1996.

Among the early rowing champions was American John "Jack" Kelly, who won three gold medals at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. But Kelly became best know as the father of movie star Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco.       

Noteworthy Olympic Medallists

Steven Redgrave, Britain- 9 gold, 2 bronze (1984-2000)

Elizabeth Lipa, Romania- 4 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze (1984-2000)

Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, Canada-  3 gold, 1 bronze (1992, 1996)

Jack Beresford, Britain- 3 gold, 2 silver (1920-1936)

Vyacheslav Ivanov, Soviet Union- 3 gold (1956-1964)

Pertti Karpinnen, Finland- 3 gold (1992-2000)

Jennifer Barnes, Jessica Monroe, Brenda Taylor and Kay Worthington, Canada - 2 gold (1992)

Lesley Thompson, Canada- 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze (1992-2000)

Silken Laumann, Canada- 1 silver, 2 bronze (1984, 1992, 1996)

Canadian rowing medals

Men's eight- 2 gold, 4 silver, 3 bronze

Women's eight- 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze

Men's coxless fours- 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze

Women's coxless pairs- 1 gold, 1 silver

Women's double sculls- 1 gold, 1 bronze

Men's coxless pairs- 1 gold, 1 bronze

Women's coxless fours- 1 gold

Men's single sculls- 1 silver, 2 bronze

Women's single sculls- 1 silver, 1 bronze

Men's double sculls- 1 silver, 1 bronze

Women's fours- 1 silver

Men's lightweight fours- 1 silver

Women's quadruples sculls- 1 bronze

Men's quadruple sculls- 1 bronze

Total- 8 gold, 11 silver, 10 bronze    

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