David Owen ©ITG

The first women’s European Rowing Championships were staged on the Bosbaan course in Amsterdam in August 1954. Yet it took quite some time once he became International Rowing Federation (FISA) President in 1958 for it to occur to Thomi Keller that women’s rowing ought to be part of the major expansion in their activities he was overseeing.

When the subject of a possible women’s World Championship was raised by a Hungarian delegate to the 1963 FISA congress - the first since the inaugural men’s World Championships in Lucerne in Switzerland - Keller retorted rather curtly that "our statutes do not foresee" such an event.

This prompted the Soviet Union’s Evgeny Kabanov to launch into one of his periodic tirades, complaining about the second-class status of women’s rowing and warning that FISA’s statutes were discriminatory and could lead to "annihilation" of the women’s sport.

"It is no accident that FISA had difficulty finding an organiser for this year’s women’s European Championships," Kabanov grumbled. "Organising a European Championship is expensive and the host receives nothing in return."

Moscow was about to stage the 10th women’s Championships on the Khimki artificial lake, so it seems likely the Soviet official had bitter experience of these difficulties.

Kabanov had another crack a year later, when women’s rowing was among subjects discussed at a meeting organised by the International Federation in Tokyo in advance of the 1964 Olympic regatta.

Organising a women’s European Championships was "inevitably a loss-making proposition", he argued, while proposing that a World Championship be staged “on a trial basis”.

Keller’s closing summary left no reason to suppose such a development was remotely imminent. The point had earlier been made that fully 70 years had elapsed between the first men’s European Championships and the inaugural world event in 1962.

FISA President Thomi Keller was a late convert to supporting women's rowing but once he did he embraced the campaign wholeheartedly, eventually getting it added to the Olympic programme at Montreal 1976 ©Wikipedia
FISA President Thomi Keller was a late convert to supporting women's rowing but once he did he embraced the campaign wholeheartedly, eventually getting it added to the Olympic programme at Montreal 1976 ©Wikipedia

Based on that precedent, women rowers would have been kept waiting until 2024.

It was less than surprising that the Soviet Union should be in the vanguard of this particular push for gender equality.

Prior to the emergence of East Germany in the latter part of the 1960s, Soviet oarswomen were utterly dominant.

In the decade after the first women’s boats sped away under a watery Dutch sun on August 20 in 1954, Soviet crews captured 42 of the 50 titles. What is more, 50 per cent of those that got away were won by the same individual: Jenome Papp, the Hungarian single sculler.

On four occasions, either side of Papp’s span of invincibility between 1958 and 1961, Soviet crews accomplished the grand slam.

In that inaugural 1954 event, they lifted the Silver Dutch Windmill trophy for best overall performance by 42 points to 25½ over the next best team, the competition hosts.

This record of success sparked rapid expansion of women’s rowing in Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, however, stagnation or even regression was reported.

In Canada, that 1964 meeting in Tokyo was brusquely told, an attempt to introduce women’s rowing had "failed totally".

In Argentina, though 15 years earlier there had been much women’s rowing, competitive regattas had "completely disappeared". The Argentinian delegate expressed the view that the "outh American woman is not made for competition and rows only for her health".

If Keller did little to promote expansion of women’s rowing in the early years of his FISA Presidency - and is even said to have been against the idea at first - by the late-1960s his attitude had been transformed. And, once convinced, he set about pursuing the cause with typical vigour.

His change of heart coincided with the election to FISA’s Technical Commission of West Germany’s Claus Hess.

This came at the Mexico Congress in October 1968. Hess, then just 35, ran against Kabanov to replace Hans Jacob, from the other side of divided Germany, and won comfortably.

Hess, and wife Helga, were among Keller’s closest and most influential confidants in his last two decades at the FISA helm, until his untimely death in 1989.

"Is your old man up yet?" Keller would say, in idiomatic Swiss-German, if Helga Hess happened to answer one of his regular early morning phone calls. "Is it dark as the inside of a cow there too?"

Hess, who competed in the coxless pairs at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, was from the outset a strong advocate of women’s rowing. President of his National Federation from 1966 until 1983, his input is thought to have been one of the key factors in changing Keller’s mind.

Within minutes of Hess’s election, albeit coincidentally, another Soviet proposal requested that FISA ask the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to include three women’s sculling events in future Olympic Games.

Though hardly effusive, the changed thinking of the FISA top brass was immediately apparent.

"The board of management was not against this suggestion,” minutes of the meeting record, "but it was of the opinion that such a regatta should include all the FISA categories of boats, that is to say, coxed fours, single sculls, quadruple sculls, double sculls and eights”.

This counter-proposal was approved by a convincing 54 votes to eight, with 11 abstentions.

From that point onwards, things began to move.

The following June, Keller raised the matter with the IOC Executive Board during a meeting with the General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAISF) which he also headed.

He subsequently expressed surprise that the IOC did not approve the request.

IOC President Avery Brundage, standing, was opposed to the addition of women's rowing because of the size of the Olympic Games but eventually backed its inclusion ©Getty Images
IOC President Avery Brundage, standing, was opposed to the addition of women's rowing because of the size of the Olympic Games but eventually backed its inclusion ©Getty Images

The Olympic body was, however, beset by other problems - some real, some of its own making - in IOC President Avery Brundage’s twilight years, and engaged on one of its periodic bouts of hand-wringing over the size of the Games.

It took just a matter of days to determine that "all requests for admission of new sports were refused on the grounds that the Games are already too large and too costly".

Keller resolved to "take the matter up in more detail", adding, correctly as it transpired: "I believe that in 1976, races for women will be included in the Olympic rowing programme".

Meanwhile, he and Federation colleagues were putting FISA’s house in order, preparing a restructuring designed to equip it for a new world in which its span would be genuinely global and its activities cover all categories of rowers, not just elite competitors.

The Congress at Klagenfurt in Austria in September 1969 was where planning turned to action. By the end of that long meeting, the FISA Technical commission had more than doubled in size, with each of its seven members given a defined area of responsibility.

Hess was to handle competitive rowing and, after the withdrawal of a prospective Hungarian rival on the grounds that it would be "more appropriate" for a woman to head up women’s rowing, Nely Gambon-de Vos of the Netherlands was likewise elected for a one-year term. The idea was that each of this septet would chair a specialist commission in their designated area.

Nineteen seventy was a year for getting this new machinery tuned up and functioning effectively.

In April, Keller and members of the new sub-commission for women’s rowing gathered in Hungary to look over the course for that year’s European Championships at Tata, 70 kilometres north of Budapest.

Besides inspecting sports facilities, commission member Ingrid Dieterle remembers tasty Hungarian food, apricot schnapps and a hotel in the middle of the Danube on Margaret Island. She also recalls Keller, ever gallant, plundering the hotel flower-bed so he could present her with tulips on her birthday.

The Championships themselves, in August, were a considerable success, with the East German women winning three of the five titles.

This was also the occasion for the new sub-commission’s first official meeting, with Hungary’s Papp, Daina Šveica, a Latvian representing the Soviet Union, and Magdalena Šarbochová, a Czechoslovak sculler who had taken silver at both the 1964 and 1965 European Championships, joining Gambon and Dieterle.

In terms of concrete progress towards new women’s events though, the year was a little disappointing.

On March 18, having previously submitted technical information, Keller dispatched a business-like two-page letter to Brundage and IOC colleagues proposing the inclusion of six women’s events at the Olympic Games.

In our opinion, there is no "valid reason" for rejecting the request, he argued with the zeal of the recent convert. "We would add that the Olympic rowing programme has not been extended since 1924."

The English version of the letter signs off, "Yours very sincerely".

The IOC Executive Board had only recently reiterated, however, that "no more" new sports would be included in the Olympic programme "for the time being"and was not exactly in expansionist mood.

The matter was eventually placed in the hands of the Commission for the Olympic Programme chaired by Árpád Csanádi, an IOC member from Hungary.

Progress towards a women’s World Championship had been complicated, meanwhile, by deliberations inside FISA over whether to turn the quadrennial men’s event into an annual one.

Keller addressed this issue with some sensitivity during the 1970 FISA Congress in Canada, where the first men’s World Championships outside Europe were about to get under way.

The two questions - the introduction of World Championships for women and of annual men’s World Championships - were, he said, "closely linked". While he was "certain" that "everyone" would approve the introduction of the women’s Championships, "many problems, particularly the question of finance, are still unsolved".

Supporters of women’s rowing may have harboured mixed feelings when, in September 1971, the IOC approved inclusion of the only men’s event Keller had mentioned in his March 1970 letter - "quadruple sculls without coxswain" - in the programme for the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.

Such a reaction would have been all the more understandable in light of the positive tone of Keller’s latest annual report, which had preceded the IOC meeting in Luxembourg.

The FISA President had told the rowing community that he hoped the Federation’s proposal to introduce six rowing events for women would be successful at that meeting. He also described the introduction of a women’s World Championships as "the first and most urgent item on our list".

The procurement of that extra men’s Olympic event for rowing was, however, a sign of Keller’s growing influence in the world of sport.

Through his proliferating roles, he had the ear of those who mattered. And even if they did not always like what he was saying to them, other leading power brokers recognised increasingly that he could not be ignored.

The pieces were falling into place for a major step forward in women’s rowing. 

It was in August 1972, in the busy weeks leading up to the Games of the XX Olympiad in Munich, that the decisive breakthrough was achieved.

Ingrid Munneke - née Dusseldorp - recalls that sections of the crowd were very much on her side on August 13 as she sculled her way to a European title.

This might be considered surprising, as the Championships were taking place behind the Iron Curtain in Brandenburg and she was rowing against East Germany’s Anita Kuhlke, a four-time European champion and local heroine.

She remembers that she and her Dutch team-mates had collected bananas provided for them in their lodgings and handed them out to schoolchildren in the crowd before racing. Probably unused to such delicacies, they repaid her with their loyalty. "I had a lot of fans shouting my name," she says.

Dutch rower Ingrid Munneke addessed the IOC at the meeting in Munich in 1972 where they agreed to add women's disciplines to the Olympic programme in Montreal 1976 ©Wikipedia
Dutch rower Ingrid Munneke addessed the IOC at the meeting in Munich in 1972 where they agreed to add women's disciplines to the Olympic programme in Montreal 1976 ©Wikipedia

Whether or not Keller witnessed this spontaneous example of East-West sports diplomacy, it was at Brandenburg that he confirmed a request that had been hinted at before: would Dusseldorp join him and Gambon later that month in Munich to help make the case for women’s rowing to join the Olympic programme at a presentation to IOC dignitaries?

The Dutch rower had come close to winning the single-sculls title before in Tata in 1970 and was a strong advocate for women’s rowing.

"The subject meant a lot to me," she told me.

According to Dieterle, a lot of thought had been given to how to convince "the old gentlemen of the IOC" that women’s rowing would be good for the Games.

"We decided to show these important gentlemen the handsome, intelligent and cheerful Ingrid Dusseldorp, the best sculler in Europe," she said.

"And it worked! That and Thomi Keller’s powers of persuasion."

Dusseldorp – whose husband was set to row at Munich 1972 in the Dutch eight and who had opted to stay in a tent near the regatta course at Oberschleissheim rather than accept an invitation to an official hotel - remembers sitting outside the chamber being used by the IOC with Keller and Gambon waiting to be called in.

For the presentation, she "spoke a little bit to say I wanted to have women’s rowing in the Olympic Games and they applauded".

She had brought her European Championship medal and held it in her hand.

It all sounds very matter-of-fact.

Women's rowing made its Olympic debut at Montreal 1976 ©Concept2
Women's rowing made its Olympic debut at Montreal 1976 ©Concept2

Some observers though - and, who knows, perhaps the IOC - were very taken with her casual, campsite attire. She thinks she was wearing jeans, which would be an unusual garment choice for one addressing the masters of the Olympic universe today, let alone nearly 50 years ago.

No matter: the singular combination of Keller and this be-denimed champion oarswoman from the Netherlands did the trick, and six women’s rowing events were accepted for the Montreal Olympics.

It is worth underlining that this outcome was far from a foregone conclusion. A record of the session, at the Maximilianeum, shows that the IOC managed to approve the report of Csanádi’s commission while "disagreeing on the introduction of women’s cycling, shooting and rhythmic gymnastics in the programme".

Only women’s handball, besides rowing, got the thumbs-up.

Dusseldorp stayed in Bavaria for the rowing regatta, which concluded on Saturday September 2.

The event was a triumph for the East German men, who took three gold medals, and for New Zealand, who powered to victory in the eights. The Dutch eight were placed ninth.

With the venue superb, thanks in part to Keller’s frequent preparatory visits, and crowds large and enthusiastic, Munich 1972 looked set to be remembered as a great regatta at a thrilling and spiritually uplifting Olympic Games.

Then at 4am on Tuesday 5 September, six assailants scaled the wire security fence around the Olympic Village and rendezvoused with two colleagues already inside.

The darkest episode in Olympic history was about to begin.

This account is adapted from a new book about former International Rowing Federation President Thomi Keller by insidethegames columnist David Owen. Thomi Keller - a Life in Sport by David Owen is available worldwide from April 26 on Amazon and selected bookshops.