David Owen ©ITG

Old rowers will not have been at all surprised by Russian dismay and anger at the prospect of the country's athletes being obliged to compete under a neutral flag at Pyeongchang 2018.

It may have put them in mind of events more than half a century ago when the International Rowing Federation (FISA) decided to strip nationalism, in the form of flags and anthems, from its presentation ceremonies. 

This coincided with the sport's inaugural men's World Championships in 1962 at the picturesque Rotsee in Lucerne, in the heart of Switzerland.

Of course, this was the era of the Cold War, the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, of which then Communist Russia was the largest constituent part.

Nor were Russians being singled out by FISA: the no-flags, no-anthems policy would apply to everyone.

Nevertheless, the Soviet reaction to FISA's decision was laced with similar sentiments to those voiced last week by both 18-year-old Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva and International Fencing Federation President Alisher Usmanov.

Medvedeva said in Lausanne that she could not "accept the option that I would compete in the Olympic Games without the Russian flag as a neutral athlete".

Figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva is among critics of the decision to make Russia compete neutrally at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
Figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva is among critics of the decision to make Russia compete neutrally at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

Usmanov wrote to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach that "athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country's flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem".

Back in 1962, the main mouthpiece of Soviet disgruntlement was a distinguished rowing official called Evgeny Kabanov.

Two days before the World Championships got under way, he raised the issue forcefully at the 58th ordinary FISA Congress.

Scarcely had opening formalities concluded than Kabanov demanded the floor. 

He expressed his "astonishment" at the course FISA had taken and lodged a protest, pointing out that the IOC had rejected a similar motion only three months earlier.

The logical conclusion of FISA's argument - that it was important to highlight the exploits of the successful athletes, rather than the support of their countries - would be to abolish national colours and emblems on the oarsmen's blades, the Soviet official argued.

"Flags and anthems represent the honour and pride of the countries and people who create the champions," he proclaimed. 

"We do not think FISA should be indifferent to them."

Thomi Keller, FISA's young President, who was then in the early stages of his three-decade reign, stuck to his guns, while characterising 1962 as a trial. 

"Countries do not win regattas," he stated. "The purpose of our decision is based on the desire to put the performance of the rower in the foreground."

Thomas Keller led the move to ban anthems and flags in rowing ©Wikipedia
Thomas Keller led the move to ban anthems and flags in rowing ©Wikipedia

With this, Kabanov backed off for the time being, while emphasising that he had not changed his mind and declaring pointedly that he knew very well what being a champion meant since he had taken great pains to become one himself.

"Among those here today," he said, "there are certainly former champions who can understand what it means for a patriot to hear his national anthem after winning a championship."

A year later, this time in Copenhagen, the issue and the Soviets were back.

Of course, on this occasion, those present would have had the memory of the de-nationalised ceremonies in Lucerne relatively fresh in their minds.

While Keller said that he thought these World Championship presentations, featuring a specially-composed FISA fanfare, had been widely appreciated by sports people all over the world, Kabanov was strangely quiet. 

When it came to the vote, it was clear why: delegates decided by a convincing 37 votes to 15 in favour of traditional-style ceremonies, featuring flags and anthems.

This, though, was far from the end of the matter. The story of how Keller and FISA managed finally to get their way in their tussle with the then mighty Communist Bloc is a textbook study in sports politics at its most ingenious.

Perhaps some current sports leaders would do well to read and learn.

There was another issue that the East European countries kept raising at FISA meetings during this era, when Germany was divided between east and west.

This was the German Democratic Republic's [East Germany] desire to be able to enter crews in its own name in FISA Championships. 

It had been a member of the federation since 1955, but on the condition that Germany would be represented by only one team at Olympic regattas and European Championships.

The staging of all-German Championships, between the East and West German federations, had for a time enabled the strongest crews to be identified. Tiring pre-Championship eliminators to select the German team had then been introduced.

From 1961 onwards, the East German request was put to a vote at a number of FISA congresses, with the status quo holding by 32 votes to 20 in 1961, 39 votes to 17 in 1963 and 41 votes to 22 in 1964.

In 1965, however, the IOC decided to allow two German teams to compete at the 1968 Summer and Winter Olympic Games, to be held in Mexico City and Grenoble respectively. 

The two teams were to march under the same banner and use the same hymn and emblem.

A press conference is held after the decision to force Russia to compete as neutrals in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images
A press conference is held after the decision to force Russia to compete as neutrals in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images

The Eastern Bloc countries must have realised that this would probably pave the way for FISA to do something similar at its Extraordinary Congress in Vienna in November 1965.

Keller had seen the writing on the, er, wall too, and been busy. The FISA President had observed at an earlier meeting how East German athletes had, on occasion, been unable to get visas to attend international sporting event in the west. 

Faced now with the likelihood of crews representing East Germany at the Championships for which he and FISA were responsible, he had done a spot of research.

He had contacted International Federations to ask under what specific conditions participation by East German athletes had been possible at events staged in NATO countries.

The replies had revealed a degree of variance on certain details. On two questions, however, responses had, it seems, been unequivocal: the flags of competing nations were not to be hoisted; and there were no flags or anthems at medal ceremonies.

Armed with this information, the FISA leadership had sent a pre-congress letter to all national rowing federations notifying them that it would propose - guess what? - that only the host-nation's flag be displayed at Championships, and that medal ceremonies be held without flags or national anthems.

Whereas, when FISA had moved before to rewrite protocol for its ceremonies, this had been for "idealistic" reasons, the letter argued, now it was being guided by “practical considerations".

It was a masterstroke: by linking the medals ceremony question explicitly with FISA's ability to grant the East Germans what they most wanted, Keller ensured the reversal of the rout he had suffered two years earlier.

The formality of the votes was completed swiftly, with both motions - for the protocol changes and then annulment of the 1955 measure insisting that there be only one German team - carried by the same wide margin: 46 votes in favour, four abstentions and no-one against.

Only the West Germans, responsible presumably for three of the abstentions, raised their voice to insist that abandonment of the one team solution was unjustified.

The record states there was just one press representative in the room in the Viennese Sports House. He had quite a scoop on his hands.

National flags and anthems were not restored to FISA Championship presentation ceremonies until the 1990s. By the time they were, the Soviet Union - and East Germany -had melted away.