Of all the options on the table, this was probably the one most of us expected. Under increasing pressure from the International Olympic Committee to align the sport with its Agenda 2020 strategic plan, FISA made the decision at this year’s Extraordinary Congress Feb. 9-12 in Tokyo to remove the men’s lightweight four from the Olympic program, replacing it with the women’s straight four. Additionally, para-rowing events will now be 2,000 meters, as opposed to 1,000 meters, at World Rowing events and the Paralympic Games.
The moves accomplish two very important things for the sport: gender equality and inclusion. But while these changes are necessary, they come at the cost of one of rowing’s most beloved—and hotly-contested—events. The decision to eliminate the light four, shortly after the removal of the men’s lightweight eight from the world rowing championships (the latter due to low subscription numbers over the past several years), has spelled the demise of lightweight sweep rowing at the Olympic Games, and likely means a diminished place for lightweight sweep rowing at the elite level more generally as rowing federations prioritize Olympic events.
“In terms of gender equality, that’s great—that’s where we should be heading,” says 2016 Olympian and now USRowing Interim President Meghan O’Leary. “That’s progress. It’s a leading principle behind Agenda 2020, and for rowing to step up and want to make sure we align ourselves with that is important not only for the sport, but also to show that we agree with those values.”
Still, the question remains: In the changing landscape of Olympic sport, does this make rowing better—and more competitive with sports gaining traction in the Olympic Movement—in the long run? Or are more, and more significant, changes necessary to ensure the place of rowing in the Olympic Games?
“Rowing is one of the oldest [modern] Olympic sports and the hope is that we will continue to be a part of the Olympic program,” O’Leary says. “But the cultural appetite for sport has changed, and dramatically so, especially in the last 10-15 years.”
She continues: “The Olympics, the way it is now, with the television rights, and sponsorships, and partnerships, all the money that’s associated with it—it’s no secret that there has been a movement toward the Olympics as entertainment. So for sports to remain a part of the program, you’re seeing them have to make adjustments.”
Current Cal men’s head coach Mike Teti is in something of a unique position in the midst of all this. Teti coached the only U.S. men’s lightweight four to medal at the Olympics (a bronze in 1996), and his wife Kay Worthington of Canada won gold in the women’s four in Barcelona in 1992, the last time the event was raced in the Olympics.
“I’m in a no-win situation here,” Teti says with a laugh. “I tend to be a little more radical—I think one of the biggest problems with our sport is that we have all these events, and everyone competes in one event. What other sports, like swimming, have over us, they’re able to have multi-medalists. If it were me, I’d reduce the number of athletes and make everybody double up or triple up—some kind of derivative of that.”
In other words, Teti is looking for more of an outside-the-box approach.
“I think the thing that would fundamentally change rowing is if we had heroes in our sport. Look, we’re rowers, and we understand it, and we like watching it. But for the layperson?”
This is something that cuts against the grain of much of rowing’s selfless lore, but it also makes perfect sense.
“To me, I’m a sports fan, but during the Olympics there are events that I watch because they pique my interest. I don’t watch swimming, but now all of a sudden Katie Ledecky is going to win six medals, or Missy Franklin, or even the Winter Olympics is probably a better example. I’ve never skied in my life, and I don’t really know a lot of these sports, but then, wow, this person is going to win three medals in cross country skiing, or this person is going to win the downhill and the Super G—that’s what we don’t have.”
In fact, the superstar athletes are already there. Take Kimberly Crow Brennan, who won two medals in 2012 doubling up in the single and double (the only rowing athlete to race two events). And there are other examples. “I mean, look at [Hamish Bond] from the New Zealand pair, who jumps in the single and beats everybody,” Teti says. “It would be kind of cool—what if he rowed a pair, a single, a double, and a quad? He might win four medals.”
When the NBA decided to add the shot clock, and the three-point line, it wasn’t popular with basketball purists (in some cases, it’s still not popular.) But can it really be argued that the NBA isn’t much more compelling as a result? That the sport, while changed from its original form, is better for it?
The 2,000-meter, six-lane, straight course is nothing like the way the sport began, when Thames watermen started competing with each other for business and pride, as evidenced by the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race. Even now, outside of spring racing, there are head races of various lengths, featuring every boat class and many athletes competing across multiple events. In order for our sport to retain its place and influence within the Olympic movement as one of the founding sports of the modern Games, does some of this ingenuity—this willingness to experiment and try new things—need to filter up to the highest level?