STORY BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
Track-and-field world champion Noah Lyles recently drew criticism when he said, “I have to watch the NBA Finals, and they have ‘world champion’ on their head. World champion of what? The United States?” Some of the celebrities who play basketball in the NBA didn’t like it, but Lyles has a point.
In rowing, we have it the other way around. The recently concluded 2023 World Rowing Championships, photographed beautifully by Lisa Worthy for the October issue of the print magazine, was open to all 159 countries that are members of the Fédération des Sociétés d’Aviron, the governing body of rowing that goes by the brand name World Rowing. But you wouldn’t know it by the results, or even by watching it.
European countries won 70 of the 87 medals awarded across 29 events. The U.S., Australia, and New Zealand won a combined 15 medals. China won the remaining one silver and one bronze. That’s it. No African, no South American, and only one Asian country won medals (but like the U.S., no world-championship titles).
The only races not won by European athletes were won almost exclusively by athletes of European descent, almost all of them rowing one of two European brands of boats with the same brand of oars while wearing uniforms that differed only by color—but not style—with the same matching World Rowing-mandated white T-shirts underneath. It was even less diverse and interesting, in multiple ways, than our sport as a whole.
All of the World Rowing Cup regattas—so important for Olympic development that the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others, including China, usually spend fortunes traveling to participate—were held on the European continent this year, as they almost always are. When the 2024 World Rowing Championships come to St. Catharines, Ontario, next August, it will be the first time they’ll be held outside Europe since the splendid and successful 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida.
So with World Rowing President Jean-Christophe Rolland declaring that change is needed and coming (also covered in the October issue of the print magazine) I’m hoping for the best—although with Rolland in charge, one must also prepare for the worst. He was president when World Rowing consented to eliminating lightweight events from the Olympics, the only type of rowing ever won by an African nation, as well as the category in which a growing number of member nations, mostly from Asia, South America, and Africa, compete.
So sure, these are the world championships, and the rowers who competed are currently the best in the world. But with the status quo, one wonders why so-called World Rowing bothers to run separate European and world championship regattas.
Yes, change has to come—at the pinnacle of our sport. It could begin with racing beyond Europe.