Subscribe Now

Rise In The East: Rowing’s resurgence in China and India

by Row360

The right resources could pull rowing into the national psyche of the two most populous countries on earth.

I travel a lot. Be it for consulting or conferences, sales trips or just to see some of the best crews and athletes in the world do their thing, the inside of a plane is a very familiar sight. Not so familiar however, were the last two destinations: India and China. The health of rowing in these two countries is on the rise, at all levels – good news for all who love the sport.

It would be fair to say that rowing in China has not been a priority sport, even though China gained FISA membership in 1973 and has since won more than 20 medals at world-level events, almost entirely in women’s and lightweight classes. At Rio, 17 rowers, including reserves, travelled with the team, for the LM2x, LM4-, LW2x, W1x, W2x and W4x. This is a strong qualification, but one that could be higher, considering China’s domination at Asian rowing events.

If rowing participation in China and India increased by just one per cent, millions more would get a taste for the sport.

The history of rowing in India is interesting, and deep-seated in some regions. The first clubs started around the mid-to-late 1800s, validating the Calcutta Rowing Club, which is still active, as one of the oldest in the world. The unfortunate reality has been that although India has consistently qualified an athlete for most Olympic Games, international success has been rare. This year in Rio, Dattu Bhokanal was the sole rowing representative from India, making the cut in the men’s single after winning a silver medal at the Asian and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta in Chungju, South Korea.

India and China’s general absence from the international podium is likely to change as rowing participation begins to grow at all levels, albeit gradually. From a purely statistical view, the talent pool in these two nations is huge: combined they contain nearly 36 per cent of the world’s population. If rowing participation increased by just one per cent, millions would get a taste of the sport.

One of the main pushes for rowing in China has come from leaders in the corporate sector, who recognise the benefits of the sport to general health, as well as its ability to instil the values of teamwork, strategy, strength, commitment and competition that have such synergy with the business world. These businesses are getting behind rowing promotion and rowing institutions to drive participation from the bottom up. India on the other hand is pushing performance from the top down, through implementing talent identification programs and nurturing elite talent and sports science agendas. Until now, this support has been severely lacking in India outside of the most popular sports such as cricket. This infrastructure, the Indian rowing federation hopes, will unlock future international success.

One of the main pushes for rowing in China has come from leaders in the corporate sector, who recognise the benefits of the sport to general health.

One of the main pushes for rowing in China has come from leaders in the corporate sector, who recognise the benefits of the sport to general health.

In China, one of the world’s largest real estate groups, Vanke, is driving up participation. I attended one of their huge corporate regattas in Nanjing in June, whilst analysing some of China’s young talent identification athletes. We also provided education to leaders, coaches and participants about the prevention and treatment of injuries in rowing.

All groups under the Vanke banner have the opportunity, and are encouraged, to create teams to race on the water as a way of building bonds, staying fit and experiencing something different to their normal business-centric activities. The Nanjing site was picturesque with its lily pads and the striking backdrop of the Purple Mountain behind the course. The zest for rowing and overall enjoyment of competition was clear.

It became clear during our visit that previous programs for talent identification, athlete analysis and effective equipment set-up had lacked the sports science elements that more developed rowing nations would expect as the norm. We found this particularly exciting as we felt that with the right people, focus and resources, the impact would be significant. Simply raising the level of education and knowledge around correct movements, training protocols and equipment at the novice level could drop injury risk factors and enhance performance greatly. At all levels of the sport, this would improve the experience of rowing and, we hope, foster the growth that we can already see. With Vanke backing these developments, especially considering that their enigmatic founder and chairman, Wang Shi, lists mountain climbing and marathon running as hobbies alongside rowing, the growth of the sport will be made possible through the added resources, support and organisational structure.

In India, we were contracted to consult with the newest and most technologically advanced rowing centre, the Sri Ramachandra Arthroscopy & Sports Sciences Centre, based at the SWSC rowing club in Chennai. Their aim is to promote the sport with enhanced practices for athletes and coaches as they move toward their longer term ambition, called Mission 2024, which involves producing an Indian Olympic rowing medallist for the 2024 cycle – a project about which the Rowing Federation of India is very excited.

Dattu Bhokanal, India's only rowing entry in Rio.

Dattu Bhokanal, India’s only rowing entry in Rio.

At SWSC, goals are driven by a healthy passion for the sport. The director of the university, a re-nowned sports medicine professor himself, is part of a masters crew nicknamed the ‘D-Force’, which was the first Indian crew to participate at a world masters regatta, racing in Belgium in 2015. One of his crewmates and fellow Mission 2024 member also happens to be a famous Bollywood filmmaker.

The facilities at the sports centre of the hospital are world class, which is to be expected since the centre is also one of the few ICC-accredited bowling action clinics for cricket in the world. There are also facilities for testing swimming, tennis and hockey. The addition of science as a keystone in the quest for greater performance and rowing promotion was identified early, and the hope is that the sum of the best technology, strength and conditioning resources, sports medicine, rowing facilities and a central base that brings all it together, will help India achieve those goals.

Understanding the athlete is key to reducing injury and enhancing performance at all levels of the sport, which is what we at BAT Logic focussed on showing local athletes and coaches on our visits to China and India. Anees Sayed, one of the biomechanics staff at the SWSC who is involved in the cricket testing, feels that the analysis of movement is ‘important to improve efficiency and reduce the loss of energy, reduce injury risk and increase the career and enjoyment for the athlete. If you can improve each stroke cycle,’ he says, ‘the multiplied effect is very strong across a full race.’

This idea is one that BAT Logic hopes to support with consulting analysis and performance rowing equipment, which is now being used for the first time in the subcontinent. The SWSC will begin a series of junior camps across the nation and continue its media-driven promotion of rowing to attract people who may have never thought about the sport. If the newspapers are anything to go by, rowing will be impossible to miss: seeing a rowing article directly underneath the sports page Indian cricket team headline was something I was both shocked and delighted to see.

The early signs of rowing in the east seem positive. A great deal must go right for these big plans to succeed in nations where rowing has never been on the sporting agenda. It may be a case of a ground swell of the right people and right resources at the right time that could pull rowing into the national psyche of the two most populous countries on the earth. BAT Logic is excited to bring products, consulting and expertise into the mix, with the many others at the forefront of rowing innovation who are now looking to Asia as a potential new market. If the combination of intent, money, athletes, access, expertise and education continues, how could the sport fail to grow?

More blades in the water means more people discovering why there is no such thing as a dispassionate rower. And when the world’s most populous nations are making a move, it will certainly be significant for the sport.

By Ed Wittich // Main photo: © Hamish Roots. // This article first appeared in Row360 Issue 13. All rights reserved.

Dr Ed Wittich is an osteopath with a Masters in lower limb biomechanics. He consults with numerous national teams, top colleges and groups such as Nike, Rowing Canada and the Victorian Institute of Sport.

Leave a comment