After a juicy morning’s racing, the afternoon became a waiting game, as FISA twiddled its collective thumbs waiting for the IOC (and probably the all-powerful Olympic Broadcasting Service) to give them permission to shift the eights heats back from Sunday to Saturday, and all Monday’s racing back to Sunday, in an effort to avoid what my German colleagues persisted in calling a ’typhoon’. Given 28mm of rain predicted and warnings of thunderstorms, that wasn’t the worst description.
This took me back to my first and only other trip to Japan, to see the 2005 worlds in Gifu. Massive rainstorms and thunderstorms across central Japan in the few days before the worlds led to Gifu’s river on which the course was built turning from a docile virtually no-stream waterway into something more like the Thames. Every race set a record (sorry, world best time), until it was decided that none of them would be allowed to count because otherwise they’d never be broken. There are limits even to this variable outdoor sport, and Gifu was taking the piss water-speed-wise. So I was aware that Japanese storms can be serious stuff. More recently we had the edges of a hurricane in storm-hit Sarasota, with athletes and media sheltering under the unused exhibition tents the day before the 2017 worlds racing started.
FISA is, of course, good at this. They work hard to develop robust tested weather forecasting in each venue, whether worlds or Olympics, and then track every single likely weather incident, taking decisions well ahead of time but based on solid data. They learn from mistakes (such as changing lane allocations very late in Dorney’s 2012 crosswind) and the officials taking decisions are all former athletes, many of them winners. If they say racing needs to move, then it does. Eventually, two hours before the opening ceremony was due to begin, the weekend’s changes were confirmed.
There was a ripple of immediate consequences, with three eights athletes due to flag-bear at the ceremony directly affected: Madalina Beres (ROU), Hamish Bond (NZL) and Moe Sbihi (GBR). Double Olympic pairs medallist Bond, whose crew races Sbihi’s in the second eights heat on Saturday with only one finals slot on offer, immediately withdrew from the flag-bearer honour and was replaced by Kiwi boxer David Nyika, but Sbihi continued in the role despite the ceremony being planned to last until after 11pm. Crews wanting a morning paddle before racing – often essential to eights — must be off the course before 8am each day….
In the present, Friday’s racing ran like clockwork, with results interesting but not surprising. The first day’s events varied from the relatively calm (men’s and women’s singles) to frenetic (Olympic best times set in the men’s doubles and and 0.03 second photofinish in the men’s quads). The calmness in the singles is because the top dozen know they just have to get through before rowing three more races, and the bottom scullers that they have a real chance in the repechages. Kjetil Borch (NOR) was the first oarsman to cross the finish line in anger in this regatta, beating Hungary and Brazil at a canter. Fourth in the race was Czech Jan Fleissner, the replacement for dejected multiple world champion Ondrej Synek, who had to pull out of competing at the age of 38 due to health issues affecting his rowing. Synek will be missed, but it does open a clearer way for Borch who goes into the week as FISA’s top seeded sculler, though not without competitions.
“The last three weeks I’ve been looking forward to getting going”, said Borch afterwards. “I can’t say I feel super-ready, I was eager to start. It’s going to be a fast course, records are going to get smashed.” He was likely referring to the combination of very warm water and regular tail-winds, though the crosswind aspect will affect both speed and fairness adversely. The other heat winners in the men’s singles (where three per race qualified) were Greece’s new bright hope, Stefanos Ntouskas, Norwegian Sverri Nieslen, Canadian Trevor Jones, Croatian Damir Martin, and German wunderkind Oli Zeidler. All of whom had a decent cushion of distance over their challengers except Jones, who unsurprisingly had Lithuanian speed king Mindaugas Griskonis snapping at his heels.
“I have been a bit nervous, but as soon as the boat was running everything was fine”, said Zeidler. The nerves are not too surprising – accompanying him to his press interviews was his venerated Olympic champion grandfather and Zeidler’s family can boast four Olympic medals in total while his uncle by marriage was in the world’s fastest ever coxed four. 2019 world and European champion Zeidler has undoubted speed, though he’s shown feet of clay in bumpy conditions, but the pressure to match his forebears could be his biggest problem, even with Synek absent and recent rough-water practice. “It was good to finally start the competition out there. We went out in every condition at home, so everything is prepared for.” The top three from each race move to the quarter-finals, where they await the best of Saturday’s repechagers.
The same pattern is followed by the women’s singles, but in contrast to the men this event has just got harder as Tokyo neared, with new names appearing on the roster out of the fog of the pandemic. It was always likely that New Zealand’s Emma Twigg would return to the Olympic battlefield after her 2018 unretirement and spurred on by lingering disappointment at uncharacteristic fourth places in both London and Rio. Always a formidable performer, she has talked about having renewed energy and confidence following her marriage to partner Charlotte. Given that her five world championship medals came despite knotty personal worries, a Twigg with no demons on her back could be very dangerous. But charging out of the wings has been Hannah Prakatsen, a Russian former quads sculler competing here for ROC, who has demolished all opposition in the very short time that she has been on the international scene as a solo competitor. Lining up against regulars such as Sanita Puspure (IRL), Kara Kohler (USA), Magdalena Lobnig (AUT), Carling Zeeman (CAN), Vicky Thornley (GBR) and Jeannine Gmelin (SUI), this makes for a crowded field. None of the previous medallists are competing any longer, so all the podium steps are guaranteed to be taken by new names.
Of the names above, it was Zeeman and Gmelin who had to settle for second, but as Gmelin pointed out, “The main goal especially in the heat is just to qualify for the next round. One of the advantages of the women’s singles racing is that you have the build-up of four races, and I personally really like it. You get a good run-through in the heat, then it gets more serious in the quarters, then you know the semifinals are going to be savage. Each race is one step more or maybe even two steps more.” Despite stories about the Irish rowing team being banned from talking to the press before the end of the regatta, Puspure was happy to chat, but not worrying about negative pressures. “I read all the messages, I don’t reply to them but I still get all the positive energy and vibes”, she said of social media attention. “You don’t think too far ahead, you just focus on whatever it is as the time, and get through the rounds safely, and you only race five people at a time.”
The men’s doubles did rowing proud, Frenchmen Hugo Boucheron and Matthieu Androdias kicking off with a new Olympic best time, which was promptly broken by Dutchmen Melvin Twellaar and Stef Broenink two races later, with a photofinish sandwiched in between. All but four of the 13 crews qualified to the semi-finals, but the breathless racing involved makes it hard to predict at this point which crews will make what is likely to be a hotly anticipated final. In the women’s doubles reigning world champion Brooke Donoghue successfully broke in her new partner Hannah Osborne, but 2019 runners-up Romania looked positively faster on paper while winning the next race, and the 2019 bronze medallists Netherlands took the third. The Dutch were run close by Lithuania, where 2018 champion Milda Valciukaite has a new partner in Rio bronze medallist Donata Karaliene who has come out of retirement.
As a small-entry big-boat event, the quads had by far the most brutal qualification system, only two of the five in each heat through to the final with the rest relegated to a single nightmarish repechage which will now run on Sunday. Australia’s new men’s combination built around returning Rio silver medallist Cameron Girdlestone gave the Dutch kings of the quads a good challenge, finishing 1.74 seconds behind them but without the Dutch having to sprint, while Poland could only just stay ahead of Italy in an extremely tight contest. The women’s quads were marginally less tight with 2019 victors China beating Poland (again, but by more than two years ago), and Germany taking the Netherlands in a tighter but also slower battle. China have to be the favourites after that performance only 3 seconds outside the Olympic best time, as indeed the Dutch and Polish quads were in closer races in the men’s event.
Saturday will see the first crews achieve finals spots, with two through from each of the fours heats and one from each eights race, with a more relaxed qualification to the semis in the pairs and lightweight doubles. Nobody yet drops off the finals pathway for good, that will happen on Sunday, but the revised schedule gives a headache to Kiwis Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, who have to race the pairs at 10:10am followed by the eights 2 hours 10 minutes later. Difficult at the best of times, nightmarish in the burning 32-degree (Real Feel 39+) heat of Tokyo’s lunchtime with 2km worth of lactate already burning in the legs.