With Cathy Pütz, Director of the River & Rowing Museum
Image credit: © Getty Images
About Chris Dodd:
Since joining the Guardian newspaper in 1965, Chris Dodd has been a highly influential “international rowing correspondent at large”, covering championships, boat races and regattas for major newspapers and journals, as well as publishing 10 books. Chris is a co-founder of the River & Rowing Museum, responsible for creating the rowing collection and setting the curatorial direction. He is currently the Museum’s Rowing Historian Emeritus and Vice-President.
Cathy Pütz: Your first Olympics as a journalist was in Los Angeles in 1984. This year’s Olympics and Paralympics are unusual in many regards. When did you last attend the Olympics and to what degree are you following them this year?
Chris: The last Olympics I attended was in Rio in 2016, when I was mid-way through writing my book More Power. I was in Rio in a freelance capacity. I went to 9 Olympics in total. We began the Rio Olympiad on a high as Britain had finished top of the rowing table in 2012. We were the top rowing country in both the London and the Rio Olympics. British Rowing’s Rio total was three golds and two silvers. Helen Glover won gold there and is competing again this year having returned to rowing after the birth of her three children.. This year I’m following the Olympic and Paralympic rowing on TV. Of the 45 rowers competing for Team GB in 2021, gold medallist Mohamed Sbihi rowed for the Rio 2016 team. Many of the squad retired after Rio, then even more left when the Tokyo Olympics was postponed.
Image credit: Nick Middleton
Cathy Pütz: Dame Katherine Grainger is one of our most feted female rowers. She talked recently about the power of the Olympics and Paralympics to light up people’s lives, but also stressed the importance of taking the pressure of expectation off young people, including young sportspeople. How do you think rowing can help build resilience?
Chris: Well, a good example is Steve Redgrave, who was transformed through taking up rowing. He was coached by the great Jürgen Gröbler for the ’92, ’96 and 2000 Olympics. The sport had taught him discipline, and how to develop strength and fitness. He had been picked out when he was a 15 year-old by Francis Smith, who coached him at Great Marlow School. He was encouraged to organise his time. The partnership with Pinsent is fascinating. He was an Etonian, the son of a vicar. He and Redgrave sparked really well off each other, despite being such different personalities. So that kind of partnership can bring out the best in people.
Cathy Pütz: What is it that makes rowing so distinctive?
Chris: Rowing is the oldest team sport. It can make a good athlete out of someone who perhaps doesn’t like touch sports, or someone who doesn’t have an eye for a ball. It teaches you rhythm. It can also give a sense of escape. Often it takes place in interesting and attractive settings. I came to the sport of rowing to avoid having to play cricket! In Germany, the sport grew in the war years as people were drawn to it to escape bombed out cities. It can bridge national barriers. I myself have taken part in several rowing tours organised by World Rowing – in the US, Belgium, Soviet Union, Canada, Australia – which take the form of rowers from the host country and those from world rowing between restaurants in scratch crews. The sport has truly wide appeal, and there’s a great sense of comradeship. And of course there is also the craft aspect, the art of boat building.
Cathy Pütz: Some people say that rowing is elitist – what would you say in response?
Chris: Yes, it is elitist, but in the right sense of that word – not socially elitist, but elite in the sense of performance level. Also, remember it was in its origins a working-class sport and part of a working way of life for 100s of years. It was working men who taught the well-off how to row. There are clubs today like Fulham Reach Boat Club that have a proud tradition of accessibility. They teach children to row from all over London. And an organisation like Simon Goodey’s Royal Albert Dock Trust does great work demonstrating the therapeutic value of rowing.
Cathy Pütz: When we first spoke, you described the close connection between historic bridge building projects and the origins of rowing. How important is this link between boat-craft and the built environment?
Chris: Yes, we were talking about Vancouver. Vancouver Rowing Club was founded in 1886 by railway engineers building the Canadian Pacific. We were also talking about William Tierney Clark. This Scottish civil engineer built Marlow Bridge and the first Hammersmith Bridge. The latter was the inspiration for bridge building in Hungary – Tierney built the Chain Bridge linking Buda and Pest, the first Danube Bridge in Hungary. The rowing club there was formed by the bridge builders, right next to it. Another point to note is that bridges are often significant milestones in important rowing races such as the Head of the Charles race in Boston, USA.
Cathy Pütz: In your account of the Museum at its 21st anniversary in 2019 you described researching stories around the working lives of Thames watermen, Cornish pilots, and ocean whalers. Where are the important connections between the sport and the lived experience of waterways today?
Chris: Well, it’s important not to forget about the huge variety of boats and types of coastal rowing. Look at the World Rowing Development Programme (formerly FISA). World Rowing depends for its existence on TV funding from Olympics coverage. Therefore rowing must stay as an Olympic and Paralympic sport. For 50 years it has campaigned to get more federations as members and to get more federations to enter crews at the Olympic Games. This entails encouraging non-rowing countries to take it up, often in boats that would not be recognised in Tokyo, that is, promoting rowing on coasts and on the water in places where there are no rivers or lakes. Recent initiatives have been supported by the French Federation for French-speaking African countries, and supported by British Rowing for Commonwealth countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and so on. This is part of the development programme I have described in my book Thor Nilsen, Rowing’s Global Reach.
Cathy Pütz: The pandemic has led to smaller museums focusing on the celebration of the local and local social history in particular. In curating the Museum’s collections today, how would you balance the Museum’s celebration of Henley as the cradle of rowing with the sport’s profile internationally?
Chris: When we first planned the Museum, we deliberately left the word Henley out of the Museum’s name as we intended it to be a significant player internationally. As plans developed, we had 3 core aspects to the content: Rowing, Henley, and the River. The river is the key, the aspect that links all the Museum’s themes.
Cathy Pütz: De Montfort University in Leicester has strong sporting history research credentials, and we have sought collaboration with them in the past. Which are the teaching institutions with whom the Museum might partner, to feed into our talks and events programme?
Chris: Warwick has been important, as are Durham, and Manchester Metropolitan University. So many universities have rowing clubs – the British University Rowing Champs is the biggest regatta in Britain. Research was at the forefront of our minds when we set up the Museum. There are archivists one should speak to at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Most of my own knowledge has been gathered on the road, travelling internationally, from the Americas, to Australia, to India, talking to people, researching small but significant archives in Berlin and in Cuba for example. This all went into my Story of World Rowing (1992).
Cathy Pütz: What technical developments have most influenced the competitive sport of rowing?
Chris: One of the most significant technical advancements still crucial today is that of the sliding seat – professional scullers from Tyneside used them as early as 1865. The development of oar shape was incremental until the introduction of the a-symmetric blade, called the cleaver because of its shape, first developed in 1991 and now almost universally used. With the greater understanding of aerodynamics and hydrodynamics there was development in refining the shape of the outriggers. The Surrey boat builder Carl Douglas designed an aero-efficient outrigger in three days that was used with wonderful streamlining and a second fin to terrify the opposition in the Vespoli’s Sydney eight.
Cathy Pütz: If you were founding a River & Rowing Museum today, how would it differ from this one?
Chris: There is a universal shortage of rowing historians which has always been a challenge, so I’d say that we would need better systems of specialist subject research and archiving, but that aside, I wouldn’t change anything – the stories we tell would be the same. The building would definitely be the same!
To research the River & Rowing Museum’s collection, click here.