TOKYO 2020: Stunning races and shock exits

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

4 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Published 29.07.21

The penultimate day at the Olympics dawned with more high wind and fast conditions, and led to another clutch of firsts in rowing. It ended with fifteen countries on the medal table, and the shock exit of the 2019 world champion single scullers Sanita Puspure (IRL) and Oli Zeidler (GER), neither of whom were able to make it through the hotly-contested semi-finals. This is the first time in either event that any reigning world champion has come to the Olympic singles competition and not reached the medal race. 

Photo Sanita Puspure, IRE W1x finished a disappointing fourth in her semi final on Thursday

In the first women’s semifinal Puspure never looked like a real contender, in a race which was predictably blown apart by ROC’s Hannah Prakatsen after early leader Sophie Souwer (NED) started to blow and dropped back.  Jeannine Gmelin (SUI) and Jiang Yan (CHN) picked up the remaining finals places. The second semifinal was dominated equally predictably by New Zealand’s Emma Twigg, taking a lead at 750m gone when she wanted to, and able to ease off the pace and conserve energy to face Prakatsen the next day while Vicky Thornley (GBR) beat Magdalena Lobnig (AUT) in one of the Briton’s best ever rows.

The men’s semis had their share of surprises, though the first was won handily (and also with caution) by Kjetil Borch (NOR). Stalked to the line by Damir Martin (CRO), who may well be doing one of his dark horse imitations ready to burst through in the final, the person who appeared out of nowhere was Lithuania’s Mindaugas Griskonis, launching one of the super-sprints he used to be famous for some years ago, and closing like fury on Martin to clinch third place. The second semi was an altogether different affair, in which two surprising scullers held the lead between them for 1900 metres. First to play was Hungary’s Bendeguz Petervari-Molnar, and when he got tired it was the turn of Stefanos Ntouskos (GRE), who had clearly taken a leaf out of the Greek W2- book.  Dashing around at high rate, Ntouskos towed world champion Oli Zeidler in his wake, Denmark’s Sverri Nielsen and Alexander Vyazovkin trundling along behind. Zeidler looked to have qualification in the bag, although he wasn’t able to reel Ntouskos back in very far, but shortening his stroke as he neared the line was a risky step and Nielsen calmly powered through him, Vyazovkin in the Norwegian’s wake, to claim the remaining places in the A-race. Zeidler, like Puspure, will have to be content with trying to win the B-final. 

Photo Zeidler (GER) finished a surprise fourth on Thursday in his M1x semi final

And so on to the big finals of the day: pairs and lightweight doubles. Many watching would see the men’s pairs as a foregone conclusion, and so it proved, Martin and Valent Sinkovic fulfilling the vow they had made to win 2020 gold in the sweep boat to add to their 2016 doubles title. Behind them a tasty fight developed between the Danes and Romanians, won by Marius Cozmiuc and Ciprian Tudosa (ROU) when they made a big push into the red-buoyed final 250m, and upgraded to a silver medal. At the last moment the Canadians made a frenetic dash for the line, but couldn’t catch the Danes. Afterwards, the Sinkovics expressed great relief that the Olympiad was over. “We won’t row the pair any more, that’s for sure”, said Valent. “Five years is enough, it’s challenging especially for scullers. We can close [the pair] now. Probably for the first year we’ll go in the double and then we’ll see. Maybe there’ll be someone in Croatia to row [the quad] with.”  

Photo Martin and Valent Sinkovic (CRO) win gold in the M2- on Thursday

They clearly see themselves still as sculling born and bred, as Martin explained. “It was really difficult to adopt not that much sweep rowing, but the pair — it’s really special. We had a lot of challenges there and I think we managed it good psychologically but I think it helped that we were brothers, we did not have that much fighting in the boat. I’m happy we’ve done it. Challenged about whether they could have beaten Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, the famous Kiwi Pair, the Sinkovics demurred. “I think we are not on that level”, said Martin, “but if we had raced them, they would have pushed us to become better.”

Photo NZL W2- Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast

The women’s pair was equally ceremonial, Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast (NZL) claiming the last crown not yet in their collection, the Olympic title. They had already broken their own world best time 22 hours before, and were outside it by three seconds the second time around. The main rivals were not Greece, worn out by their Wednesday antics, but ROC and Canada, the latter having dashed out quickly from the start. The Kiwis were content to wait and let the Canadian energy burn out, then put their feet to the floor just after halfway, and slid through the pack like knives as Canada began to fade and be passed for a while by Britain. The Russians followed, then put in a massive push at 1450 gone, only to be capped again by New Zealand, who proved that they were equal to challenges as well as capable of leading by miles. As Helen Glover and Polly Swann in the British duo faded, Canada rallied for bronze behind ROC and the Kiwis coasted to a triumphant gold. 

Irish eyes were smiling at the end of the lightweight men’s doubles when Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, feted and favourited every bit as much as the Kiwi women’s pair, claimed the first ever Olympic rowing gold for Ireland. They had their work cut out, after Germany refused to let them have an easy ride. Jason Osborne and Jonathan Rummelmann (GER) led the field out but as they were just beginning to tire the Irishmen picked up the slack and pounced on the opportunity to smoulder through.These two fled away from the pack, of which the undisputed leaders were Italy’s Stefano Oppo and Pietro Ruta, and traded efforts for the last kilometre, the Irish having the edge throughout. This win has been coming ever since McCarthy ejected O’Donovan’s brother Gary from the bow seat a few years ago in selection after the siblings’ silver in Rio, and it did not disappoint. 

Photo Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, IRE LM2x win Ireland’s first ever rowing gold

“To see the flag being raised was beautiful”, said O’Donovan. “There is not much celebrating to be done in Japan to be honest, we will have to be careful with the Covid you know. Otherwise we would all go out and have massive parties. We would probably knock down the apartment but fortunately for the Japanese and our neighbours, that won’t be happening this year.”  “It will be nice to go to [the dining hall] and not keep an eye on what we are eating, we’ve been waiting all week”, added McCarthy. 

Photo ITA LW2x with their gold medals on Thursday

By contrast the lightweight women’s doubles final was a race in which frankly anyone could have gained a medal and any one of four could have got the gold. Locked together across the lake, the doubles vied for space at the front, first Emily Craig and Imogen Grant (GBR) putting their noses in front, then Marieke Keijser and Ilse Paulis (NED). Inches were in it at times, and even Romania’s double, marginalised for a while in mid-race, managed to close the gap by nearly two seconds and get back on terms.  Entering the final split the Dutch had a decent lead by lightweight standards in an outside lane, and Britain were starting to ease through France and Italy. Nobody was going to get an easy time though, and Italy pushed again, holding onto GBR. France pushed up again, this was breathless stuff. GB lifted their rate, here we go…. And then in the closing seconds disaster struck, Keijser’s bow-side blade caught in the water, twice, and bang, the gold was gone. Italy surged on the very last stroke, to gold, France behind them, and an ages-long photofinish wait before it was decided that the Dutch had taken bronze by less than 5 cm. 

Photo LW2x official photo finish

The photofinish is deceptive since the Empacher slot of the Dutch bow is more visible than their white bowball, which was fractionally ahead of the Brits. A medal at least for the ever-brilliant Dutch, despite the most astonishing close to an Olympic race since the M1x dead heat of Rio. 

It’s a good question whether this water is treacherous: it’s certainly been bumpy and fast, though is unlikely to be as bad for the last day of racing. It does not, however, seem to be unfair, and the degree of bounce on the water is much less than it was on the open reaches of the Rio Lagoa five years ago. It is very rowable, but needs care and precision. Perhaps the lack of racing has not helped crews trained for months under lockdown. But being skilful enough either not to crab or to be able to recover quickly is part of the toolbox of being a champion, as the NED M4x showed on Wednesday.