Next Stop Tokyo: Olaf Tufte

Tokyo 2020 Athlete Interviews

3 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 10.07.21

Firefighter, farmer, and four-time Olympic medallist Olaf Tufte, 45, faces his seventh consecutive Olympics Games. At Tokyo 2020 Tufte will represent Norway in the men’s quadruple scull and is hoping for a fifth Olympic medal. To date he has won two golds in the single at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, and in the double, a silver at Sydney 2000 and a bronze at Rio 2016. He shares his thoughts on Tokyo 2020.

Photo Olaf Tufte, Norwegian Olympic champion in the M1x (2004 and 2008)
Credit Benedict Tufnell

How’s the farm? The harvest will be a fortnight after I get home from Tokyo. Right now, the fields are growing so there is not too much to do, but my father is helping. The breweries, the events, and the clothing, are all up and running, so I have a lot of good people around me.

Seven Olympics is mind boggling: How will Tokyo 2020 feel? This Olympics will be a really grey and boring competition. We have done our training; all the athletes have prepared but we will not get that Olympic feeling. The enormous thing about the Olympic Games is that all athletes are equal: When you go into the food court in the Olympic Village you can say hi to Usain Bolt and everybody else, and even if they are the biggest star, they all say hi back.

The other guys in my boat have never been to an Olympic Games. This one will be like a national regatta, there will be no spectators. Remember London? Already, as you lined up on the start you could hear the crowd shouting for Team GB. And you heard them all the way from the start to the finish. That’s awesome. And it was the same in Sydney; it was crazy. For Tokyo, we won’t have anything.

A journalist asked: can we prepare for not having any spectators? I said – don’t worry – if my crewmates want noise, I’m going to make some for them in the last 500! Rowers aren’t used to having a lot of spectators but there is always a lot of noise in the last 500 meters, and it gives you more energy to race.

My crew don’t know what it could have been like, they only know the rumours, but it will be very different. I started in Atlanta 1996, and it was crazy. In the US, if you’re an Olympian, you’re a hero, if you are a medal winner you are a God. Racing the Olympics in the US is the biggest event you can ever be in, every Olympics since then has been two steps down all the way. I wish I could go to LA.

As a coach?
I don’t think anyone wants me as a coach. I’m one of the last old fashion guys. I’m strict. I’m like Jürgen [Grobler], I don’t care when people say I don’t have motivation, or should we do so much? You do what you are told and I will get you fit. It is a new world out there; coming into this team with these young kids I had to adjust. I realised I can’t train them as I have been training or I will kill them! The biggest thing was to learn how the guys coped with the training, and how their brains worked, it helps to know which buttons I have to push, and when to push them. It is frustrating for me when we have to step down the training and not row as much or go as hard as I want, but we will row our fastest if everybody is more or less okay and race fit. So, it’s all about the team, not the individual.

I have been in the single for over 15 years, so I had to make some adjustments, but I managed to do it more or less. They hate me. But I told them: “That’s the plan. You will hate on the way but hopefully you will love me after Tokyo because I pushed you hard enough so you can actually achieve something.” We will see if they still like me.

Photo NOR M4x
Credit Benedict Tufnell

What sessions are you doing? We have just finished our last race piece and from now until Tokyo it is all about coming back up and recovering at the right time.We went on camp for two weeks in Gavirate, Italy, after World Cup III. Then we went home and took the foot off the gas so did less training but more speed work.

Have you heat trained? Every day we do some heat training and try to prepare for the conditions. I checked the weather in Tokyo and, right now, it’s 28°C, so it’s not too bad. And once you get on the water you get that little breeze from the rowing although a tailwind is the worst because then the heat feels really intense.

What was it like in Gifu, Japan, when you won the silver medal at the 2005 World Rowing Championships?
That was extreme, it was really hot, like 36°C and 85% humidity. I didn’t do any heat training I just had to cope, but I managed.

When do you fly to Tokyo? Wednesday 13th July. When we arrive, we will travel to camp 90 minutes out from Tokyo and then come back and move into the Olympic village on the 19th July.

What’s your target for Tokyo? To beat Great Britain! No, I mean, I have a young crew and we haven’t performed that well except in Sabaudia. Spot one and two at the moment, I think they are quite finished off. I think the Netherlands and Italy are a step ahead from the most of us. And then things open up quite a lot after that. You have GB, Estonia, Germany, and Poland. And we are in that group. I think we will be able to get the A-Final and it will be a really hard race for that bronze medal. As I told the guys just put us in the position with 400 metres and let’s see what we can do?

Nikita Morgachev and Pavel Sorin from the Russian quad will not compete at the Olympics as they tested positive for meldonium. How does it feel to know there is doping within your event? It always frustrating when somebody has tried to cheat but I don’t use a lot of energy trying to figure out who is clean and who is not clean. Rowing is quite a clean sport because there is no money. I feel sorry for the sport that we have it at all. And I feel sorry for the people who do it [doping]. To have such low self-esteem that they go out and cheat. I mean where are their values? Didn’t they learn anything growing up? That’s the big problem, the culture is so different; it’s okay to cheat as long as nobody catches you. Maybe it is not always the players but the system that is wrong. When you are in a group of people, for a long time, you end up being what you are in. You become a product of the environment you are in. So, whose fault is it – the athletes or the system?

Photo NOR M4x (Lane 5) and RUS M4x (Lane 4)
Credit Benedict Tufnell

How are you feeling right now?  Good question. I feel okay, the rest of the guys are quite tired. Normally, I’m not sure if I should go to Olympics at all, because I’m always so tired! I just spoke to my coach, Kjetil Undset, and asked if I might push on a little bit more. Overall, we are feeling better and better. It has been a long journey, but we are getting better. The group is on a positive wave, and we are looking forward to seeing how fast we can go; that’s a good feeling.

What races are looking forward to watching? Hopefully, I will be in a position where I can watch my own race. That will be fun, I’m not used to watching the races I row in, I normally hunt my opposition down from behind. But seriously I know my sport, so I like watching all the races. I’m originally from the single scull and the single is the Formula One event; You win the single, you are the best rower; Period. You win the eight, you are the best team. Either you are the best rower, or you are the best team. One out of one.

Do you know any of the other Olympic athletes, which other sports will you follow? Norway is so small, everybody knows everybody. We will definitely watch the 400 metre hurdles – that is now a Norwegian sport. I know most of the track and field athletes. And I know the beach volleyball guys. They are favourites for the gold. Also, I am friends with the triathletes, and they are on for the medals so that will be fun to watch. And, of course, the hand ball women – they have a long and successful tradition at the Games.

Will you pack anything unusual? I don’t leave without my coffee. I also bring my own mattress and pillow; I never go anywhere without those.

How do you get a mattress out there? In a big bag. It is a topper, so it rolls up.

Are you flying straight back? Yes, we fly back 30th July. It is really strange because Kjetil will still be racing. It will be tough for him not having the team at all and totally alone.

Video Olaf Tufte, NOR M4x, 2021 WRC III Sabaudia