Back In The Day: 40 Years of women’s rowing at the Olympics

by Row360

Rio 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of women’s rowing at the Olympic Games. Donna McLuskie looks back to the summer of 1976: the Montreal Games, and where it all started.

In February 1976, oarswoman Anne Warner, a 1975 world championship silver medallist in the US women’s eight, caught pneumonia. Soon after, on the morning of 3 March, Warner and eighteen others from Yale women’s rowing team assembled themselves before the school’s director of women’s athletics, and proceeded to remove their tops in protest. Written across their chests and backs as they stood, half naked, was ‘Title IX’ (a reference to federal legislation that had been passed in 1972 which mandated athletic equality regardless of gender).

Their captain read from a statement: ‘On a day like today, the rain freezes on our skin. Then we sit for half an hour as the ice melts into our sweats to meet the sweat that has soaked our clothes underneath … half a dozen of us are sick now, and in two days’ time we will begin training twice every day….’

‘Off the water, the East German athletes were discouraged from socialising. To deter a risk of defection, they were shadowed by the Stasi secret police.’

There were no hot showers or locker rooms for the women’s rowing team at Yale in 1976. They had to wait on a bus while the men showered and changed before a thirty-mile drive back to campus from the boathouse. Olympian Ginny Gilder, who later supported Yale’s Gilder Boathouse build, recalls further humiliation when some oarsmen would refer to those female athletes as ‘sweathogs’.

The Olympics, held in Montreal that summer, were the first to offer women’s rowing events, despite their being offered to men since 1900. (Bad weather forced rowing to be cancelled in 1896). The inclusion of women was the culmination of years of planning and international cooperation, including necessary changes to the rowing world championships that would fulfil the International Olympic Committee’s requirement for world championship participation before a sport could be considered for Olympic status.

Judy Geer as a young rower (left); Judy in 2016. Photo courtesy Beana Bern for Sterling College.

Judy Geer as a young rower (left); Judy in 2016. Photo courtesy Beana Bern for Sterling College.

In her blog ‘Expedition Rowing’, Helena Smalman-Smith describes how the British women regularly trained at Hammersmith at the time, where there were men’s but not women’s toilets. Consequently, the oarswomen had to squeeze one-by-one into the rigger room to change, and use public facilities in a local park.

‘I think we were all trail blazers at that time. But I was not thinking of it that way when I was doing it.’

Two years earlier in 1974, Britain’s first women’s rowing team had headed down to Lucerne to compete at the inaugural world championship races for women. The athletes formed three crews: a coxed quad, a coxed four and a pair. Since resources were limited, they could take only two boats between the three crews. The quad and four had to share, which required de-rigging and re-rigging between races.

Meanwhile in East Germany, training conditions for elite female athletes were drastically different. Selected by talent scouts as pre-teens, rowers who were deemed to possess potential were invited to special schools that focussed on sport, and were expected to fit academics around a rigorous training schedule. By the time athletes were late in their teens, they were expected to have completed 1300–1600 hours of training in their chosen sport every year (roughly 25–30 hours per week). If they fell short, they were reprimanded by teachers and coaches.

ol5Young rowers who perform well were amply rewarded by the state. Sport was supported at the highest political level. Elite sport was considered to be an important measure of success for the nation’s socialist regime. Olympians were effectively ambassadors in tracksuits, with male and female athletes generally treated equally. Successful rowers and their families enjoyed many perks, including a car, a better home, education and access to international travel. These incentives fostered a highly supportive environment complete with outstanding training facilities, professional coaching that used a solid scientific basis for technique, progressive “ medical and nutritional research, and societal encouragement. By the early 1980s, East Germany had 700 full-time rowing coaches.

Judy Geer recalls arriving at the Montreal Games as part of a US woman’s coxed four: one of six US crews competing in the Olympics that summer. The team’s head sweep coach was legendary Harvard coach, the late Harry Parker.

‘I learned to row during my first two years at Smith College,’ explains Geer. ‘It was proper rowing for young ladies “who couldn’t possibly carry their own boats because they were girls and the boats were too heavy.” When Dartmouth began to accept women, I transferred, wanting to row because I enjoyed it so much. It was terrific. At some point, my coach said I should try out for the Olympics and I laughed. But then I started to think about. It kept creeping into my mind so I thought that maybe I should. I moved down to Boston where Harry Parker and many hopeful athletes were converging. I was an unknown, from the woodlands up north, so it made sense to get down there, see what was going on and make myself known.’ After several weeks of intense seat racing during a training camp, Geer was selected for the first US women’s Olympic rowing team.

(Above): Montreal's Olympic Stadium today

(Above): Montreal’s Olympic Stadium today

The British sent two women’s crews to compete at Montreal: a pair and a coxed four. They made do with secondhand boats and used experimental composite blades that were reinforced with carbon fibre, designed by British oar-maker Jerry Sutton. The shafts, which were painted black, twisted in the Canadian summer heat during the pre-Olympic training camp and replacements had to be shipped out hastily.

Several of the women who competed in Montreal recall guard escorts armed with machine guns, who would lead their coach and them between the Olympic Village and the course – a stark reminder of the taking of hostages and killing of athletes that had occurred during the Munich Olympics four years earlier.

The British women were issued new clothing for the Olympic Games, including nylon singlets with an innovative printed design. However, as Smalman-Smith reports in her blog, the stripes of the Union Flag were accidentally inverted so the athletes resorted to hand sewing British flag emblems onto their standard cotton racing kit instead.

In contrast, the East German women arrived at Montreal typically well prepared. At some point prior to the games, the East German coaches realised that the Île Notre Dame rowing basin was shallower than FISA’s minimum depth. In anticipation of these conditions, the Institut Fur Forschung (FES) designed new eights for both the East German men’s and women’s crews and both went on to win gold. At the time, FES had the world’s most elaborate racing shell research facility, including a 285-metre testing tank.

The US women’s rowing team in Montreal.

The US women’s rowing team in Montreal.

Off the water, the East German athletes were discouraged from socialising. They generally kept to themselves and avoided post-regatta parties. To deter a risk of defection, East Germany’s athletes abroad were shadowed by the Stasi secret police.

Joan Lind, the US female single sculler, won a silver medal, and the US women’s eight took bronze. The British women didn’t make the podium. East Germany dominated rowing across the board, winning nine gold, three silver and two bronze medals at the Montreal Games.

The East German model for sports performance proved extremely effective. Between 1966 and 1990 their women’s rowing team won 121 medals (of a possible 145), including 70 gold, 34 silver and 17 bronze at European, World and Olympic competitions. Competitors and “ coaches alike noticed that East Germany brought formidable, heavyweight female athletes with deep voices who rowed in shells with monster rigs, designed to be set high and heavily loaded, with short inboards. The rest of the world could only look on in awe.

ol9Tom McKibbon, coach of US silver medallist Joan Lind, pondered the interface between his athlete and the East German single sculler Christine Scheiblich, who won gold over Lind by a margin of .65 of a second: ‘…Christine lived in Dresden, Joan lived in Long Beach, but sport can put you together within a few centimetres, so there’s a bond there that no one else knows or has, a certain closeness to people you really respect because they either beat you or almost beat you…’.

Early Olympic oarswomen were restricted to racing 1000 metres, only half the distance raced by the men, for a variety of reasons that were deemed ill-founded by the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and women have raced the full 2k distance since.

‘When sport can put you together within a few centimetres, there’s a bond there that no one else knows or has, a certain closeness to people you really respect because they either beat you or almost beat you.’

The women rowers of the Montreal Games were harbingers, whose opportunity to compete was a culmination of time and resources: federations and political parties passing legislation and providing funding, oarswomen campaigning for equality, and people around the world supporting the progression. In meeting at the games, each country shared a glimpse of their national ethos, then took new ideas back home for the advancement of their sport.

‘I think we were all trailblazers at the time when women’s competitive rowing was developing,’ says Geer, who has since continued to shape rowing as a longstanding and integral part of the company Concept2, known for their omnipresent oars and ergs. ‘But I was not thinking of it that way when I was doing it. I was discovering a sport that I loved, enjoying it and feeling thankful for the opportunity. It’s looking back on it that I realise we were pioneers,’ she says. ROW360

This article first appeared in Issue 13 of Row360 // All rights reserved.

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