It’s a truism that every Olympic sport, and indeed every aspiring Olympic sport, wants to grow. You don’t hear a lot of International Federation Presidents talking in urgent tones about the need to reduce participation. But the question of growth is complex – does it mean more people, or does it mean people doing better?
That is a dilemma upon which the World Rowing Federation FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron) is currently pondering.
Speaking in September after this year’s World Championships in his native France, FISA President Jean-Christophe Rolland spoke of the need to “develop rowing of all different kinds”, adding: “We have to renew ourselves as an Olympic sport.”
That statement, from the man who won Olympic gold in the Sydney 2000 men’s pair along with Michael Andrieux, chimed in with two of the core statements of intent formulated by the governing body: FISA’s Vision – “to encourage the development of the sport of rowing and strengthen the bonds that unite those who practise it" and FISA’s Mission – “to make rowing a universally practised and globally relevant sport. To spread the sport in all its forms.”
As Sheila Stephens Desbans, FISA’s Development Manager, recalls, FISA’s broad development programme has been in existence for around 30 years, having emerged in the wake of the first of the modern Olympics to turn a decent profit, the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
With Olympic Solidarity grants available to a range of sports, FISA’s current Development Director Thor Nilsen went out of his way to ensure a fair tide of the new money flowed rowing’s way.
The idea was to engage as many new nations as was feasible, giving them the basic rowing know-how to proceed and organising regattas that would eventually link them into qualifying processes for elite competition.
The overall emphasis of FISA’s mission shifted significantly when qualification for the Olympics became a more stringent process after the 1996 Atlanta Games.
With the encouragement of the International Olympic Committee, the drive was on to widen the base of nations capable of entering the qualifying process, and the figures indicate a steadily rising level of success in this regard.
For the 2000 Sydney Games, Desbans points out, the number of rowing nations involved in qualifying was 65. For the 2004 Athens Games, the figure was 85. By the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics that figure had risen to 100, remaining at the same level for the London 2012 Games.
As the Rio 2016 Games loom on the horizon, there has been another rise in involved nations to 110, with newcomers this year including Djibouti, Haiti, Malawi and Trinidad and Tobago, with the latter emerging as potential qualifiers in the Para-Olympic disciplines.
The African Continental Qualification event for the Rio 2016 Olympics, held last month in Tunis, involved the largest number of competitors ever seen at the regatta.
A total of 24 nations participated, including for the first time Benin, Mali, Ghana, Djibouti and Mauritius.
But in all this process of development there has been an inherent ambivalence for FISA – should it be focusing on producing athletes from a wider range of countries capable of contesting qualifying places for the World Championships and Olympic Games, or should it be about universality, about reaching as many new people as possible?
“It’s something we are reflecting on in terms of growing rowing as a sport,” says Desbans.
“It’s not just about the elite, but about how you get more children, seniors and masters involved in the sport.
“There is a strong feeling that we should be looking more at the longer-term development of coaches and athletes.
“There is a better chance of our sport growing if we really concentrate on getting more people involved, and then the top of the pyramid will look after itself.”
Across the continents, FISA attempts to carry through this mission with the help of around a dozen volunteers or consultants with coaching backgrounds, with the additional aim of engaging local schools to ensure sustainability for the projects.
“People need a basic understanding of rowing, and access to lower-cost equipment,” says Desbans. “Training up home-grown coaches is the best way of creating a lasting legacy for the sport.”
Of the ten boats which achieved Rio 2016 qualification at last month’s African Qualification Regatta, two were from Zimbabwe. And both rowers - single scullers Micheen Thornycroft, who competed at the London 2012 Games, and Peter Purcell-Gilpin - owed much to the guidance offered by FISA’s resident “home-grown coach” in that landlocked country, Rachel Davis.
Davis, a Canadian with extensive coaching experience, first went over to Zimbabwe as part of FISA’s Rowing In Africa project in 1996. Her subsequent experiences illustrate how a dedicated, altruistic coach can benefit a broad base of rowers and aspiring international competitors. But it also illustrates how, even with the best will, elite performers are still obliged to hone their talents in the established “rowing powerhouse” nations.
“In 1997 when my year was up I married a Zimbabwean and have been in the country ever since,” says Davis, who has a job as a school PE teacher in Harare. “Now I do commissioned work for FISA (coaching on development camps and more recently qualifying coaches).”
Reflecting upon the task with which she has been engaged over a period of nearly 20 years, Davis says: “There is no tradition of rowing in Zimbabwe – or most of Africa, for that matter. The work here has been very much focused on junior rowers, many of whom get support from their schools. We have five clubs associated with high schools, and one adult rowing club.
“We train mostly on two lakes close to the capital, Harare, and when we put on regattas we can expect about 300 rowers aged between 14 and 60.
“We have some decent boats, including Swift racing shells from China. We don’t train in 20-year-old wooden boats or anything like that.
“But getting hold of boats is not always easy. At the moment we have two we are waiting to get over the border from South Africa, but the Government here has just said it wants 40 per cent of the value in tax, which was quite unexpected.”
Thornycroft’s own rowing career was impacted by another unexpected intervention from the Government, as Davis explains.
“Micheen and I first worked together when she was in high school at Peterhouse Girls' School in Marondera," she said.
“It is an all girls’ boarding school. Both her older sister Roseanne and younger brother Patrick were a part of my rowing programme there.
“In 2003 their family was forcibly removed from their farm in the Zimbabwe Government’s land reallocation scheme. Micheen left school and went to Rhodes University in South Africa where she rowed in eights with her sister Roseanne.
“In June 2011 Micheen contacted me having heard about the qualification regatta happening in Alexandria, Egypt in October of that year. She was then working at a school in Pretoria teaching and coaching.
“I had moved schools and was based in Harare. So I agreed to meet up with Micheen in Alexandria for the FISA 10-day training camp prior to the regatta and we would give it a shot.”
Thornycroft, now 28, duly qualified for London 2012, resigned from her job in South Africa and moved in temporarily with Davis in Harare while she concentrated on her Olympic training.
Much of that training took place at a dam north of the capital – and entailed dodging hippopotamuses and crocodiles when their lake all but dried up during a drought. After such experiences, even the London Olympics paled…
“Our goal for 2012 was to enter the race feeling as if we were prepared and ready for a fair fight,” Davis recalls. “What was realistic, given the time-frame and the resources, was to be somewhere in the middle of the pack.
“We also wanted to spread the spirit of Olympism throughout our journey. She came second in the C final in London and we felt we had accomplished what we set out to do on both fronts.”
Davis and her charge clearly manifested the spirit of Olympism in the cheeriest of fashions at London 2012.
An article written about them in the Waterloo Region Record, Davis’ local paper back home in Canada, suggested their sunny demeanour around the Olympic regatta despite a distinct lack of funding had made them “the most well-liked pair at Eton Dorney.”
Other Olympic competitors went out of their way to lend equipment or trailers, also offering a place to stay and assistance in getting sponsors.
Even the race suit that Thornycroft wore was donated by Regatta Sport, a Canadian company.
“We’ve had some tough times, but the other nations have stepped in and helped us,” said Thornycroft, the first Zimbabwean to earn an Olympic place, shortly after failing to progress from her quarter-final by one position. “I’m setting up on the start line, and I feel like all those girls, they’re my friends.”
She added: “This means everything to me, it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Zimbabwe is tiny, but we’ve got so much support all over the world. Our support base has grown.
“Me and Rachel have just had so much fun, I want to carry on. I love it. It’s been the best year ever.”
Thornycroft was determined to do it all again in Rio 2016. But the route forward became complicated.
“A month after 2012 Micheen and I sat down with the team of professionals who had been supporting us to discuss the way forward,” Davis recalls.
“We decided that if we were going to do another Olympic cycle then this time we wanted to do more than just participate, we wanted to be competitive. The next three years were a struggle as we attended World Cups and Worlds Championships together (her best result was a 10th place in South Korea) and her boat speed improved marginally.
“But the isolation of training in Zim for Micheen was our biggest obstacle and after several ‘break-ups’, Micheen and I amicably decided that we had reached the limit of what was possible for us to do together in improving her boat speed.
“And with increasing pressure coming from FISA wanting 'results' from a developing country that was receiving IOC funding, a new plan was made.”
Thornycroft went back to train in South Africa, where her current coach is Andrew Grant.
Davis describes the decision as “both easy and difficult”, explaining: “In South Africa they have facilities and infrastructure to support high performance athletes and their programme has produced exceptional results on the world stage. And Micheen would have other athletes around her with whom she could compare her progress on a daily basis … this move also meant that she gave up her teaching job and became a full-time athlete.”
The “difficult” part, in Davis’ view, was Thornycroft “feeling as if she had let us down.”
Davis adds: “We had talked so much about wanting to show the world that results could be produced through limited means if you just put in the work and maximised on the resources you had.
“Micheen also wanted to help with the rowing association infrastructure and to inspire the rowing community here. So many of our athlete success stories run along the lines of ‘...born in Zimbabwe now training in....’. and she wanted her story to be different.”
Davis, however, believes Thornycroft’s story still is different.
“Micheen is still highly involved in the developing of our protocol and infrastructure," she said. "She is the chair of our Athletes' commission and has regular contact with the junior athletes training in Zim and the two senior male athletes who have joined her in Pretoria - we have also qualified a men's boat.
“She continues to be a role model and her and I meet up at international competitions and training camps around the world and share ideas, problem-solve and laugh plenty. We will always have a connection as our athlete/coach relationship went far beyond the business of rowing. She is family and I am extremely blessed to have her included in my life story and I am so incredibly proud of all she has accomplished.”
As winner of the African title – having narrowly missed out on qualifying for Rio via the October World Championships, where she made the B final – Thornycroft has raised her ambitions for Brazil.
“What can you expect of her for 2016?,” says Davis. “An A Final, that is the aspiration.”
Such an achievement would mark another huge step forward within international rowing for Zimbabwe. But it would also underline the inherent difficulties in developing talent to the very top without having access to significant funding and infrastructure.