At the helm

British Rowing Chairman Mark Davies

10 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography British Rowing
Published 16.05.22

The son of former BBC Match of the Day commentator Barry Davies, Mark Davies is a graduate of Eton College and The University of Cambridge where he read French and Russian. He started rowing at Christ’s College and went on to cox Goldie in two Boat Races.

Davies worked as a broadcaster before co-founding Betfair, a gambling company matching bets online. He exited Betfair in 2010 after being the face of the company for several years. He joined British Rowing as Non-Executive Chairman in 2018.

I’m abuzz with questions. What next for British Rowing? With restructuring and redundancies underway is there a strategy in place following the bruising Tokyo 2020 Olympics? Are British Rowing’s finest days resigned to yesteryear, or has the old ship still got life in her yet?

Bouncing along the pavement with a spring in his step, and a tightly knotted red tie, is the sprightly Chairman. It’s the first time anyone from British Rowing has agreed to talk to Row360 since Tokyo 2020.

This interview took place on 25 January 2022

What was it like growing up as the son of Barry Davies? And how did you take to broadcasting?

People used to say I sounded like dad when I was in a boat. As the years have passed, he has become a bit of a national treasure, especially for some of his lines. People quote them at me all the time. It is very sweet.

Having dad as a dad; he was in one of those jobs where everyone has a view.

Come Monday morning everyone would have a point of view about whether dad had done a good or bad job on Saturday. And that was quite weird because on the whole you don’t know what your friends’ dads do – and you certainly don’t know what they do every day, or how they performed in every meeting.

But in my case people would come along and say, “Your dad missed this”, or “Your dad was great on that”.

Broadcasting is something I was doing when we set up Betfair. In the end I left it because I couldn’t get the role that I wanted and Betfair was starting to grow quite significantly. For a long time, I’d been riding too many horses. It was unrealistic to carry on doing both, I had to do one or the other and I jumped Betfair’s way, that was in 2003.

I miss it [broadcasting] a lot. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. Words are the thing I am best with. I was presenting on 5Live and Sports24, and I went for the job of sports news correspondent but didn’t get it. I was making fast progress but at the time I felt like I’d been trying for ages and was going nowhere. I look back now and think, Oh the naivety of youth.

I’ve jumped around doing stuff. I haven’t had a career. I’ve jumped from one thing to another. And there’s a bit of me that’s thinking, what next? From a head-hunter’s perspective I’m a nightmare, I’m not trained to do anything specific, and it’s hard to pigeonhole me.

I did French and Russian and a postgraduate degree in History. I went from that to the City as a trader. I did five years of that, but after three I realised I wasn’t going to stay and so I started to freelance as a broadcaster. I got myself a job with the BBC and another writing for the Daily Telegraph.

I spent a summer writing on cricket and worked freelance at the Beeb [BBC] before getting offered a fulltime job there. And I got asked if I’d help set up Betfair. So, I did those concurrently for three years before deciding I really couldn’t work nights in one place, and days in another for much longer.

I had a ridiculous workload. I was producing the sport for BBC Breakfast which is now Mike Bushell’s spot. His producer will get in at 9pm the night before and write his scripts, cut all his pictures, and will decide the running order and set everything up. It is Zoom calls now, but for me it was satellite feeds.

I’d go in on a Sunday night at 9pm and we would go on air at a 6am and go off at 9am. We’d have a wash up meeting at 9:15am. I’d jump on my scooter at White City and go to the Betfair office in Parsons Green. I’d get there at 09:30am and work until 6pm. I’d go home, and I’d sleep for three hours before getting up to go back into the BBC. I did the same thing going into Tuesday, and then same thing Tuesday to Wednesday. On Wednesday night I’d play football.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday I’d spend a lot of time sleeping when I wasn’t at Betfair. And then Sunday I’d be back at the BBC again. So, I was working silly hours, and it became unrealistic to do that for much longer.

In 2003 they asked if I wanted to renew my contract and I said no. Then I went to Australia to set Betfair up down there for two years (2004-2005). I came back and I probably should have left Betfair then, but I didn’t, and we carried on. We floated in 2010. And I set up my little consultancy business after that. I stopped that in 2015. And since then, I’ve been volunteering. So, what’s next? I have absolutely no idea!

I saw an interview with Judy Dench. Judy Dench must have been about 85 or 86, and this interviewer asked are you still working? And she said [Davies impersonates Judy Dench], “Well I’m doing this film but after that I’m a little bit worried because I can’t see what else I’ve got”. And I thought you’re 86 and you’ve got however many BAFTAs, Oscars, and whatever else, if you are prepared to work someone is going to offer you a gig. I sort of hope – in my own little way – I’m like that. When people think I’ve got time they will offer me a gig, but I’ve got no idea what that will be. I never get approached by headhunters. Ever.

What’s been your connection to the sport and how did you get to become Chairman?

I first got into a boat in October 1990; it was at Christ’s College Boat Club in Cambridge. I’d come from a rowing school where you either rowed or played cricket and never the twain shall meet.

Half my mates were rowers, and half my mates were cricketers. The cricketers thought the rowers were a bunch of useless whatsits and the rowers were passionate about rowing. I played cricket.

I got to Cambridge and decided to have a crack at rowing. I’ve a reasonably good eye for sport and I’m reasonably self-aware movement-wise. I still remember the guy who first coached me. We were in this tub, and you know what it is like when novices turn up and they haven’t got a clue. I got in and dropped the blades in and he asked if I’d rowed before. I said I hadn’t, but he was adamant I had. I told him I’d watched it and how hard can it be! He said, “You are quite good, but you are also quite small, so you could row and perhaps stroke our novice crew, but after that you probably don’t have a future in it. Have you thought about coxing?” So, I gave coxing a go.

At the end of the year someone suggested I trial for the lightweights. I went to our boat club captain and asked him what he thought, and he said, “No, I don’t think you should”, and I said, “No, I agree, I thought it was a bit soon” and he said, “You should trial for the heavyweights”. Anyway, nine months later I was sitting on the start down there [Davies points to the Tideway] for the Glod [Goldie, the CUBC reserve crew] for the 1992 Boat Race.

I had an intense period of rowing, and it was very specific to Cambridge and the Boat Race. I’d done one year in my novice crew in college after which I did Boat Race stuff, and then I gave up. So, my knowledge of the wider world of rowing was pretty well non-existent.

I remember when I set up Crabtree [Boat Club], I was amazed that I had to register with the Amateur Rowing Association. Why do I have to do that? I knew nothing of the governance of sport – nothing at all – the only reason that I got the role at British Rowing, is because four years earlier, totally randomly, I had been asked to join the Board of Archery GB. Had I not done the archery job there’s no way in the world I would have got the rowing job.

Through archery I got to understand sports governance and the challenges of running a sport, and what it is to have 100s of clubs around the country who don’t like their national governing body.

It is true across all sport in this country, every national governing body has the same issues; membership, clubs, money, development, the difficulty of wanting to grow the sport and to have a diverse and inclusive program when clubs are clubs, and they want to do what clubs want to do rather than be told what to do by their National governing body.

Every sport has the same issue. When I sat down in Lower Mall and they had my CV in their hand, I was able to talk knowledgeably on sports governance.

Without that there’s no chance in hell I’d have got the job. I had a fortunate mix of some rowing knowledge; I know what it takes to move a boat. It was all new to me in 2018 but I came with a very clear vision of what this sport can do.

What makes a good Chair?

Oh blimey, I didn’t know you were going philosophical on me!?

I’ll give you the same response that I gave when I was interviewed for this role. In many ways what makes a good Chair is what makes a good cox. So, you have in front of you a group of people who all have their own talents and all bring their own bits to the party. It is incumbent on you as a good Chair to make that group of people better than the sum of its individual parts, which sometimes means being very firm and sometimes means letting people get on with what they want to do. It means recognising the individual characters and playing to their strengths to maximise what they produce.

It is not somebody who takes control, particularly in the position of a non-executive Chair. This is a change that has happened in the last decade at British Rowing, and a lot of people don’t necessarily recognise that. The role has gone from being an executive Chair to being a non-executive Chair. An executive Chair can direct, command and control, and instruct and get done, whereas a non-executive Chair doesn’t have that. The non-executive Chair must cajole, persuade, and bring-along-with-you. It is a longer process but as the old proverb goes, If you want to walk quickly walk alone and if you want to walk a long way walk with others.

As a founding member of Betfair you evidently have a strong entrepreneurial background. At British Rowing are you ever frustrated that you can’t be more hands-on, grab the thing and run with it?

At times I have wanted to see things done but that’s not necessarily the same as saying I’ve wanted to do them. I come from an environment that is fast paced.

Where actions and delivery are the focus. We still considered, discussed, and debated, but action was very much the focus.

Over the first four years of my Chairmanship plenty of people struggled with the pace at which I wanted to see things delivered. Some think I cut corners. I don’t believe that, but I like to see action and delivery. There are times when it has been frustrating but British Rowing is a different animal, you can’t suddenly change it overnight. Having said that, I was brought in in the knowledge that I was likely to be disruptive.

Andy [Parkinson] and I got on very well as individuals, but I think he sometimes looked at me and thought I was bonkers. I think a lot more is possible than several people at the organisation think is possible. I believe you must not be frightened to aim for the impossible. To aim for the stars and see where you go. Aim for quick delivery and don’t be frightened that it might not work because ultimately if you deliver quickly and it fails then you start again.

Did you have more control in the period when the former Performance Director Brendan Purcell and the former CEO Andy Parkinson left?

No, because there is still a clear process that must be undertaken.

Not only were the Board insistent, and rightly so, on that process, but UK Sport also has an interest. Initially there was a suggestion I should step in an as interim-chief executive, effectively becoming an executive chairman for a period, but the process doesn’t allow that because I’d lose my independence and then I couldn’t necessarily go back to being a non-executive Chair.

What I did do in that period was see if we can get some clarity around the strategy. Which is not to say that I created it. We had agreed a strategy in a Board meeting in June 2018 and reaffirmed it in June 2020. What we had not succeeded in doing was making a public expression of our strategy in coherent everyday language.

I said to the Board, “One of the things we have struggled with is the articulation. Can I have the remit over the next three weeks to create it in a format that people can look at and feedback on? Unless we can articulate it and put it in the public domain, in a coherent format, we can’t ask the wider world what they think”.

The other thing is that we appointed an interim chief executive. That process was largely managed by one of our independent directors but obviously I was part of the group that interviewed. I had a say in that, and I led the search for a performance director. If it goes wrong, then you are sitting looking at the person you can blame.

Were you surprised by the personal attacks you received via social media after Tokyo 2020?

People were unhappy, understandably unhappy, and where do they go with their unhappiness? They go to the national governing body, and they go to the person leading it. It doesn’t surprise me. It does portray a lack of understanding as to how the sport is structured, what the role of the Chair involves, and the way things are done.

I made an observation to a few people after Tokyo, about the challenge of coming in as a Chair midway through an Olympic cycle. I believe that challenge is underestimated. I arrived in 2018 and we were supposedly two years away from Tokyo.

You have the feeling – in the way that is always true of anywhere you join – that everybody who has been there for so much as five-minutes longer than you, seems like they have been there forever. You don’t know when they arrived and you don’t know their history, so you sort of assume everybody is on top of what they are doing.

I thought If I go down to Caversham and I start to get in people’s faces to get to know them, there seems to be much more in it for me that there is for them. They are on a path, and they know what they are doing. They’ve got two years left and they don’t need some Jonny-come-lately to distract them. As a result, I didn’t get to know people in the way that if they did have anything they wanted to say, they would say it to me. Because who was I? Some remote figure.

If I had my time again, particularly knowing that in the end Tokyo was three years away, I would have gone in and got to know people better. When you know people better, they can talk more openly to you about their fears, hopes, and dreams, and whatever else, good or bad. If there is something they are not happy with, or they are concerned with, you can hear about it.

When you come in and take the view that I did, you are much more limited in your access to ground truth. You can see surveys and you can hear things, but what are people thinking? I felt a bit like the queen who thinks the world smells of fresh paint – every time you turn up it’s, “Let’s put on a good show, here comes the Chair”. That’s a challenge in any sport.

It is a learning I’d pass on. My advice to my future Chairs would be to get to know people. Even midway through an Olympic cycle it is important. And if, for whatever reason, you don’t have that opportunity then you must recognise that there will be uncertainties in the squad.

Uncertainties underneath the bravura of an elite group who have confidence, and more to the point, a group who want to exude confidence. But that doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on inside.

I now know a number of people, and it definitely helps that you feel that this is your Olympic cycle. I came in midway through Tokyo, and I will leave midway through Los Angeles. This cycle is mine to get right.

The fact that I have a performance director I can work really well with is great. We need to work closely together and trust each other and not feel like, “Oh hang on this is a new guy who’s come in, what am I going to tell him and what am I not going to tell him”.

Were the Tokyo 2020 Olympic team results inevitable?

There were lots of reasons behind the team result. You can paint it in a number of different ways. Second in the table on a World Cup scoring system is not the end of the world, but that is not the basis on which anybody is judging it; athletes, coaches, national governing body, UK Sport. A silver medal and a bronze medal is a better performance than we had at the world championships in 2019. In some respects, it should not be a surprise.

We had lots of reasons that are well documented: a lot of retirements after 2016, changes in personnel, bits and bobs that were definitely problems that I won’t go into but things that affected performance. It doesn’t have to be massive when the margins are as small as they are. Little things had little effects, and cumulatively they came to a result that was disappointing for everybody.

The piece that you wrote saying, Were The Team Let Down By Management?’. As I said, there were lots of little things and some should have been corrected but not all were obvious.

As an outsider – and you are an outsider to the process in Caversham – it is very difficult to effect change if you are not being asked for help. You can ask questions, and you can make suggestions, but the line between helpful and being a pain in the arse – when you are not being asked for help – is a line that you do not want to cross. When you are told, “No, this is all fine. You may think x but actually it’s y, and no thank you we don’t need help, this is all going all right.”

Put it this way, and I’m not blaming anybody here, but nobody in Caversham said to me, “We’ve got this problem, can you help us solve it”. As I say, the problems in question were little things that built into a bigger thing. The extent to which they had an impact is evident as you can see from six fourth place finishes. But for a couple of seconds, we could easily have been sitting here and having a totally different conversation. I say that not in terms of, “Oh isn’t it a shame that we are not having that conversation”. On the contrary it is a good job we are having the conversation we are having. Those couple of seconds might have papered over problems that we would never have been made aware of.

The process we have undergone since Tokyo – allowing people to very openly express their views and then to put together a coherent plan of things we need to correct – would not have come through a wash up of a Games that had a gold medal or even a couple more silver medals. I wasn’t around to witness it, but I know people who believe the results that came late in the Rio regatta actually served to cover over questions that people had, even then.

When did those problems start?

It depends on how you define a problem really, doesn’t it? Ultimately all the people over the years who have served the GB Rowing Team are never going to look back on any part of it and say well this was wrong and that was wrong.

Having said that, I talked to some of our alumni, and they tell me stories that make you think, “Oh my god how was that acceptable, and how did you get through that and still win a gold medal”. One of our alumni said to me, “I’d go to international regattas, and I would far sooner sit with oarsmen from other international federations than sit with somebody from our own team, we just didn’t talk to each other, there was no camaraderie at all”. I spoke to one of our most successful Olympians the other day and he said, “When I went off in my Olympic final in 2004, I know very well that the team wanted us to lose”.

The need for an athlete-centric approach is a growing concern for many international federations. British Rowing’s high-performance strategy refers to the “happy ship” and “happy athlete”. Given results are objective and linked to funding, is there a danger that notions of a “happy athlete” will fall by the wayside? And how will you measure happiness?

It is pretty much impossible.

There is an interesting study to do with pain thresholds and the endurance of pain, I think it was one of the Daniel Kahneman studies. The study is something like this: a set of people have pain inflicted on them for a period of time, there is no respite and nothing good happens at the end. Then they have another experiment conducted on them and with greater pain for a longer time, but the final thing is positive. They are asked for their recollections of the two experiments and the one where they had to endure the greater amount of pain is the one they remember more fondly because – so the argument goes – they ended up with something positive.

There is definitely an element of – we are out there to achieve an aim – and if you can achieve the aim, then you’re prepared to put up with a lot in order to get there. I think people lose track of the fact that our athletes are not cutting corners. They are working hard; they are putting themselves through the same pain barriers as they always did. So, when we talk about athlete-centric and a happy group we are not saying to cut a session or to do an easier session. Athletes require more explanation around what we are doing and why. Much less of the, this is what we do and don’t ask any questions, just get on and do it.

People express it in different ways, but there has been a change in the zeitgeist; today’s generation of athletes and the way people relate to the world is different, whether you think changes are for the better or for the worse. Talk to athletes of the past and you will hear how they had their own differences with coaches and teammates: the same problem, but just for different times. Every athlete – every person – has their own way of doing things. Sometimes systems and colleagues are flexible, and sometimes they aren’t. Whether the path that’s chosen means you get as much out of training as a different path is not something you can ever test, because you can’t re-run it. We don’t have parallel tracks in different universes, so we are never going to resolve the debate. All of which is a long-winded way of saying, it is very difficult to measure happiness. Happiness means something different to different people.

What am I trying to achieve for the squad? I want each squad member to feel that they have performed at their very best when it matters most. And if we have a wide enough funnel then we combine them performing at their best with the fact that they started off among the best. Then hopefully that converts to being the best in the world. That’s as far as we can go.

It is a myth that we said, “Everyone has got to be happy all of the time”.

Tough training happens, and tough decisions are made. Anybody that has ever been anywhere near a boat knows it is as much art, as it is science. It is not as simple as an ergo score gets you in.

Everyone has been in a situation where they felt they won a seat race only to be told, “No you lost”. And there’s the age-old debate of, “They put too much emphasis on the ergos, they put too much emphasis on the seat race”. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all seen it. So, you are always going to have people who are unhappy, you are always going to have people who are unlucky, and you’re always going to have people emerge from that feeling scarred.

What we must do is carry the people through who are feeling scarred and help them to adapt and allow those who get through each of the tests to keep performing at their best. We must do this without scrimping on what they do. That means training smart not necessarily just training harder. We need to strike a balance. We provide coaches that understand this stuff, physiologists that understand this stuff, and a performance director who really gets it.

In the run up to Tokyo I think it became a sort of, “Oh it is all about happiness”. That wasn’t the problem. The problem, if I could identify a single problem that was interpreted as everybody must be happy, was actually an absence of decision-making. And that’s not the same thing.

I think that impacted much more than anything else, and maybe that’s been interpreted as, “Oh we want it to be athlete-centric and we want everyone to be happy”. Certainly, that was not the objective, if that became the outcome then that was a mistake, but it definitely wasn’t the objective. And it isn’t the objective now. If you talk to the athletes, I think they find it pretty insulting that people think they’ve gone soft.

Are these problems resolved?

I’d emphasise these are not big glaring terrible things but small incremental changes. By talking to everybody at Caversham [post-Tokyo] as we did some common themes came out. It is very clear what they were. We’ve put together a set of forty points that we need to make sure we get right.

There are things that we will need to do. We can’t just think, “Everything is fine let’s move forward”. What we are trying to do is create an environment where people can maximise their potential. That includes, taking onboard the collective wisdom of our alumni community. I hope we can engage people who have been through it and understand it, in a way that we haven’t done to my knowledge at all, but certainly not to a significant extent in the past.

Those who have been through the system are very well positioned to help with aspects of it. I’m not saying they make the best coaches, or physiologists, but they might understand the mental pressures at a given moment. An understanding that, for example, I can’t have because I haven’t been through Olympic selection or come anywhere near it.

I’d like to think that over the course of the next three years we are going to be using people much more effectively in that regard. It is something I would like to see happen. I can’t impose it, but I’ve talked a lot with Louise [Kingsley] and I know she is keen.

In the wake of recent redundancies at Caversham and funding cuts, should GB Rowing supporters lower their expectations for Paris 2024?

You cut the suit to the cloth you’ve got.

It is no secret that our funding is down by £8 million from its peak. We were at £32 million at one point, and we are at £24 million now and it has come down in this cycle relative to the last one.

We can’t afford everything we were doing before. The team has sat down and worked out what we cut and from where, to allow optimal performance within the existing budget. We are not saying, “Look we have cut this so cut your medal expectations”. We are making these cuts because we believe this is the best way, with the money we’ve got, to satisfy the medal expectations that we have. We’ve underperformed at successive Olympics; we can’t underperform at a third.

How will you measure British Rowing’s new performance director Louise Kingsley’s success?

We will be measuring on whether we hit our medal targets. There are lots of things that go into what happens on the day, but ultimately, we have a clear medal target and that’s how we get funded.

I am of the view; targets are what fall out of the bottom of performance. You can’t turn around and say, “Oh unfortunately it snowed on the day, and we weren’t expecting that”. Things are black and white. Ultimately, Louise and the team will perform if we get all the things that go into performance right. And going back to Tokyo we didn’t get all the things right.

At Tokyo we missed several medals by a small amount. We just got them wrong, and we just missed out. If we just got them right, we would have got the medals. People tell me it doesn’t always work like that, and of course that’s true it doesn’t work like that 100% of the time but I believe, on balance, if we get things right then the results fall out of the bottom.

What is the Paris 2024 target?

Four to six medals. The same as Tokyo.

The current role of the performance director encompasses both the Olympic and Paralympic programs, which is a new approach. Is Kingsley doing the job of two people?

There is a restructuring going on now.

I’m not sure it is public, but it was signed off by the Board yesterday. Those at Caversham have been notified.

No; Louise is not suddenly doing two jobs.

One of the things we would do differently if we had our time again [Tokyo Olympiad] is… how can I put this delicately? I want to be careful for the simple reason that it wasn’t my appointment, so I don’t want to criticise the way the appointment happened, but we asked Brendan [Purcell] to fill the shoes of a guy [Sir David Tanner] who had been doing a job for 25 years. One person into one person’s job.

I left Betfair after 10 years of making a job my own. I grew with the company. I was there right from the start. The little group of us just developed as the company developed. When I left, my role was taken by four different people. The role had grown around me and it played to my strengths and the idea that you could get somebody who was a clone of me was not going to work, so they split the role accordingly.

In a similar way the performance director role had grown around David Tanner. And don’t forget it had grown in a different environment. It had grown when he had two significant heavyweight characters as chief coaches.

In an environment that was different.

The world has changed since Rio 2016. The governance of sport has changed, and the role of the Board has changed, and in the process the implications for the people involved are different. The mechanism by which people can object to things are different. All these things have changed because of issues in different sports. I’m not saying we ever had any of those issues but I’m saying it is easy in a febrile media atmosphere to make life difficult for people. So, all those things together and you drop a man into the middle of it and say, “You do the job”. That’s a very difficult thing to ask.

Brendan [Purcell] was a good guy but he came from a small sport, and we asked him to do an awful lot. He did admirably, but it was very difficult to succeed and unfortunately Olympic targets are fairly black and white.

To what extent might we get Purcell’s vision for GB Rowing, albeit without him?

There has never been an argument about what we are trying to achieve but it has been the articulation of it, and it has been the decision-making process behind it.

I’m a great believer in simple English, maybe that’s a product of my background. You must talk to people in layman’s terms, in simple phrases.

Objectives are not complicated; they are widely shared. People basically want the same things. There is always going to be a slight difference in execution because there is always more than one way of doing things but if you are in a rowing squad you don’t want to think about stuff that you don’t need to think about.

I don’t want to spend ages criticising the past as I’m very focused on the future. But, if somebody asked me what my advice is for running a rowing squad I would say, you need to be decisive, and you need to be clear. You need to recognise that people have the same goals, but they might have different approaches. After that a lot of it deals with itself; don’t complicate it, keep it simple.

Were you surprised when former GB Chief Coach Jürgen Gröbler went to France, and do you have any regrets as to how he left GB Rowing?