British rowing tears itself apart after worst Olympic performance for 45 years
For the first time since 1980 Team GB failed to win a class. Not one gold medal to show for a £24.65 million investment in the sport
They began by almost bumping off a rival boat in the calamity that was the men’s four.
And yesterday Britain’s rowing team capped its worst Olympic regatta for 45 years by turning the air bluer than the water.
A Bronze for the men’s eight meant they finished with two medals from their week’s work along the Sea Forest Waterway
For the first time since 1980 Team GB failed to win a class. Not one gold medal to show for a £24.65 million investment in the sport.
As the men’s eight came ashore the inquest began and within minutes an extraordinary split emerged within the ranks.
The heat had been turned up by James Cracknell, the plain-talking former champion, questioning the performance as he is entitled to do as a pundit.
“We got three gold, two silver in Rio,” he said. “We come away from Tokyo, £27million of investment in British Rowing, with one silver and one bronze.
“At a time when the national budget is under pressure from so many different areas, is that a good return on investment?”
Cracknell had previously pointed an accusing finger at the decision to force out legendary coach Jurgen Grobler.
Grobler, it quickly became clear, is not only a formidable coach but a man who divides opinion. Josh Bugajski surprised crew mates in the eight by accusing him of “destroying” athletes.
“I’m going to be brave and say something that the crew don’t want me to say,” said the bowman. “I cracked open a bottle of champagne when Jurgen retired.
“I had three very dark years under him. And I think I’d be a coward if I didn’t say that on behalf of the guys who are stuck at home, because they got a darker side of Jurgen and they aren’t in the team.”
There was more from Bugajski, who added: “I will admit, he’s a good coach to some people. But there were some he just seemed to take a disliking to.
“What he did to them was just destroy them – destroy their soul, destroy everything they had.
“He had complete power. If you didn’t get funding for a boat, your funding was never going to go up. I was pretty much broke for a year or so.
“My relationship suffered, my friendships suffered. Everything suffered.”
Moe Sbihi, who carried the Union Jack at the opening ceremony a week ago, took the opposite view, saying Grobler “bred winners” and “knew how to elevate people”.
And legend Sir Steve Redgrave ventured that British Rowing moving towards a more sensitive environment had perhaps made them a “bit soft”.
“If we want a soft approach,” he added, “we will have to expect softer results.”
British Rowing had a target of four medals here and ended up with two and six fourth places, of which Vicky Thornley deserves special praise for the best ever performance by a British female single sculler.
But across the regatta, judged by their own standards, the team were below par. Nine medals (four gold) in 2012; five (three gold) in Rio and now this.
Performance director Brendan Purcell conceded: “We didn’t meet our own expectations. We can’t hide from that.”
He expects UK Sport to want to sit down with him as “we are accountable to that funding”.
Before then the rowers themselves probably need to clear the air.