Wednesday, 11 May 2016

When women first rowed at the Olympics

"What year was that?", you may ask. Was it back in 1948 when women first competed in canoe racing over 500m? No. Maybe in the 1960s then – after all, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963? Wrong again.

Astoundingly, it was only in 1976, at the same time as the incredible gymnast Nadia Comaneci was achieving levels of perfection that had hitherto been thought impossible (and awakening my interest in the Olympics on a black and white TV), that women rowers took part in the Olympics for the first time. And they didn't even get to race the full distance.

Three members of that first British women's Olympic rowing team talked to me about their experiences, and revealed a story of determination against the odds, sprinkled with events that, 40 years later, appear sometimes funny, often farcical, and always head-shakingly extraordinary when compared with the consummate professionalism of GB rowing today.

But first, the first Worlds 
For 16-year old Pauline Bird (now Peel), the path to the 1976 Montreal Olympics began in late 1973 when her club, Weybridge Ladies Amateur Rowing Club, received a letter from Penny Chuter, the Amateur Rowing Association's first, paid national coach with responsibility for women's rowing, announcing the trials for the first British women's rowing team which would aim to compete at the 1974 World Championships in Lucerne, the first to include women's racing. As young Pauline had won the club's sculling championship, she felt she was up to entering.

She was right. She made the team, but over 40 years later, still remembers her quad coming last in the repechage, some 17 seconds behind the next crew. Eliminated from further racing, while the rest of the crew set off to do some tourism, Pauline had to spend the rest of the regatta at the course as she was under 18 at the time, and therefore had to stick with her chaperone who was there. She made the most of this by spending her time watching what she realised were "the best women rowers in the world" as they raced the semis and finals, learning from their technique, their warm up and warm down routines, and how they conducted themselves.

Ridiculous rigging
I mentioned that Pauline was in the quad. A COXED quad, that is. Yes, if you're astonished that women only raced at the Worlds from 1974, and at the Olympics from 1976, here is an even more incredible fact: it was only at the World Championships in 1985 and the Olympics in 1988 that women raced in coxless quads. Until then, the powers that were "decided" that they lacked the skills to do so.

But back to the 1974 World Championships where the first British women's rowing team comprised three boats: a coxed quad, a pair and a coxed four.

But when I say boats, I mean crews, because the quad had to boat share with the four. Yes, you did read that right. One crew would race, get the boat off the water, the other crew would rerig it in a hurry, race, then it would be put back again to the first rig for the repechage, and so on. Oh, and to get the span wide enough for the quad, they had to pack the bolts out with wooden blocks. I mean, can you imagine if our fabulous women's double and pair had had to share a boat like this at London 2012? No, neither can I, and rightly not.

Ladies loos and the 100m dash
The women's squad did seat racing and training camps in Nottingham, the only multilane rowing lake in the UK at the time, but most of their routine training was done out of the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing) premises in Hammersmith. Which was all very well, except that there was no women's changing room in the building at the time. Beryl Mitchell (now Crockford) recalls that they had to take turns squeezing into the "rigger room" to change, and then run to the park 100m away to use the public loos.

For several of them, the hardships was a challenge to be relished. Beryl says she blinkered herself to the negatives, while Gill Webb (now Parker) talks of how she loved the cameraderie that comes from getting stuck in to hard training as a group.

Funding, and why it didn't pay to be vegetarian
Full funding of athletes was still a very long way off in those days, and all members of the squad had jobs or were students. In the year running up to the Montreal Olympics, Pauline worked at the Hammersmith branch of Midland Bank, where the manager was a former high-level squash player. One morning he caught her falling asleep at her desk. When she explained that this was because she had done an early morning training session, he immediately told her only come in at 10am if she was training first thing, so that she could have a nap first. I wonder if this enlightened and supportive man followed her career and saw the fruits of his "there's more to life than work" management style?

But although this kind of practical support was obviously helpful, as were the weekly meat vouchers donated by Dewhurst the butchers, financial backing was desperately needed too. Unfortunately, an approach from the London Rubber Company, which was interested in raising its profile with the female market by sponsoring the new women's rowing squad, was turned down by Penny Chuter for being "improper". She had a point, perhaps: its main product line sold under the brand name Durex.

Equipment: two ways to stretch that (non-existent) budget
As the 1976 season began, the women's coxed four had become too strong for the boat they had been using, and had pulled several of the rigger bolts through the shoulders, so moved into a Karlisch that was possibly bought from Carmel College.

It had wooden "canvases" and was therefore heavy but, according to Gill ran nicely if enough effort was applied. Pauline explains that the boat was named "Supernova" by the Matthew Arnold Secondary School for Girls in Staines, whom Penny Chuter had asked to name it as part of her initiatives to get more young women interested in rowing.

Buying boats second-hand like this was one way of dealing with the lack of funds. Another was to be guinea pigs for experimental designs. After decades when boat and blade making had hardly changed, equipment makers were beginning to explore the possibilities afforded by new materials, in particular carbon fibre, and oar maker Jerry Sutton, developed a new type of composite blade which had carbon fibre reinforced wooden shafts which allowed the blades to be lighter for the same strength.

For some reason the shafts were painted black: Pauline isn't sure why, though she thinks it was just because they looked "cool".  However, "cool" was exactly what they turned out not to be in the heat of a Canadian summer, and two of the coxed four's blades twisted during the pre-Olympics training camp at St Catherine's as the black shafts soaked up the sun, and replacements had to be hurriedly sent out.

GB W4+ at Montreal: Gill Webb is in the white cap, Pauline Bird is on the right,
and coach Penny Chuter is at the back in blue.
Photo taken by Mike Spracklen.
And so the results
The 1976 Olympic Regatta was totally dominated by the Eastern bloc countries which won 15 of the 18 medals available for women's rowing (West Germany got a bronze, and the USA a silver and a bronze). East Germany was particularly successful, winning six medals, four of them gold plus two silvers. The USSR won five medals: two silvers and three bronzes.

Beryl's pair came 10th out of 11 crews, whilst Gill's and Pauline's coxed four was eighth out of eight, although Pauline points out that the French and West German fours weren't entered for the Olympics after the GB crew had beaten them at Lucerne some weeks earlier.

Why the Easties were better
I asked all three women what they had felt at the time were the reasons for the Easties' dominance. They agreed that the main factors were full tine training and, of course, drugs. As Pauline puts it "a lot of those women had very deep voices", while Gill explains that even if they were clean at the games (drug testing only happened at competitions at that time), they had the benefit of training on steroids. And, of course, that patronising decision to limit women's racing to just 1,000m (even much later, some men continued to express the view that women would damage their reproductive organs if they raced further than this) played perfectly into the hands of anyone on strength-enhancing drugs.

But there was more to it than that: Beryl cites "attitudes" as holding the GB women back, adding that "in many cases the women were worse than the men", because many women felt it wasn't feminine to train hard. Even those in charge of the team had low expectations of the crews, and Pauline felt that some treated making it to Montreal as all that mattered. In contrast, many communist countries actively promoted women's sport to support their political ideologies.

Both Gill and Pauline were also aware that the Eastern bloc coaches had qualifications in sports science, nutrition, and sports psychology and used these effectively in training their crews.

Altogether it was just a totally different approach, admittedly facilitated by being full time, but still hugely more focused, with a much greater determination to prove they were the best, and thoroughly professional in every sense of the word.

Other memories of 1976: guns, Princess Anne and sex-testing 
The Montreal Olympics were the next games after the terrible hostage-taking and murder of eleven Israeli by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972, so there was an unprecedented level of security. Gill and Pauline have strong memories of there being guards armed with machine guns on the coach they took from the Olympic Village to the rowing course.

Gill Webb's on the right in the foreground.
HRH is on the left.
There may have been less obvious security arrangements too. The GB women's team's outfits for opening ceremony included wide-brimmed hats. Whilst this was certainly a fashion at the time, Pauline always wondered whether the design was chosen so that snipers wouldn't be able to identify Princess Anne (who was competing in the equestrian three-day eventing).

All the team members were given positions for marching into the stadium for the ceremony: Beryl's happened to be next to Princess Anne, but she swapped places with Pauline who, aged 18, was the youngest member of the rowing team, and discretely admits that she had a "nice chat" with Her Royal Highness.

At Montreal, women had to take DNA gender tests or "femininity control", as it was officially described, as they had for several previous Games. Whilst the process was relatively discrete and dignified, involving just a cheek swab, a negative result would have been humiliating, and Pauline remembers being quite worried about it as there was just enough medical awareness of intersex conditions at the time for people to know that visually appearing to be a woman didn't mean you'd pass the test. Princess Anne, incidentally, wasn't sex tested as it was felt this would be inappropriate for a member of the Royal Family although it wasn't necessary anyway as equestrianism is the one Olympic sport where gender is irrelevant.

What not to wear (a kit farce)
The standard kit for all GB athletes, not just rowers, for many years was a white vest with red, white, and blue stripes round the chest, with the red stripe at the top, and the blue one at the bottom.

The rowers were issued with bri-nylon singlets which, innovatively, had the stripes printed on rather than sewn in. However, not only was the nylon too uncomfortable to row in, according to Beryl, but the red and the blue had been printed the wrong way round, and so they all raced in cotton singlets as usual onto which they had to sew Union Jack badges themselves.

And finally, the after-party 
The rowing events took place during he first week of the two-week games, leaving the rowers a week to enjoy life in the Olympic village. Pauline was astonished to find that doughnuts came with anything other than jam in them (lemon cream was a revelation, and understandably so), sat in a jacuzzi with Duncan Goodhew, and enjoyed a concert starring the Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Petersen and the Beach Boys.

1976's Olympians today
Gill Parker currently coaches the senior men's squad coach at Lea RC. Beryl Crockford is Head Coach at Sydney Boys High School in Australia. Pauline Peel competes regularly and successfully at Masters level.

I'm very grateful to all of them for sharing their hard-won experiences with me.

A more detailed account of the GB women's rowing team at the 1976 Olympic Games can be read here.

Update (September 2016): Tragically, Beryl Crockford passed away on 11 September, 2016, following a cycling accident.

Olympic flag photo: Copyright: attila445/123RF Stock Photo. The other two photos are from Gill Webb's private collection and are reproduced here with her permission.


  1. I enjoyed reading this - a slightly scary illustration of just how much rowing has changed in my lifetime. I'd be interested to know how these women's experienced compared to men at the time. Presumably funding was similarly tight and the contrasts with the eastern bloc pretty great. I know Chris Dodds' book on the Janousek era included a similar story of buckling blades.

    1. The men certainly faced many of the same uphill struggles at the time: training alongside full-time jobs, competing against full-time athletes. Interestingly, when I asked these 1976 women what the main barriers to their success were at the time, one of them immediately replied "the men". Probing more, it turned out that she didn't actually mean the individuals themselves, but more the "system" both British and international.

      For instance, back then, ALL of the women's and lightweights (Worlds only, of course) racing was first, and then the heavy weight men's racing started. TV and press photographers only turned up for the heavyweight men's racing, which is one reason why there are no photos of actual rowing in my piece above. In addition, it meant that the men got longer training camps in the venue country.
      But she also recounted a story of going to Mannheim Regatta and the men were put up in some German barracks but the women were put in a US Army transit camp, and US soldiers kept barging in all night wanting to party.
      The men's double and eight for '76 had carbon boats, of course, whilst the women were still in wood: tehre was a definite feeling that they ha to prove themselves before they'd get anything better (a it of a Catch-22, of course), although another of the women was more comfortable with the fact that they weren't given top equipment (given the budget constraints) when they hadn't actually done anything that merited it other than being the best in Britain.

    2. Actually, Helena, it was a lot more scary than that at the American barracks. The officer on the gatehouse told us that we should lock our doors at night and not walk about the camp at night as he couldn't guarantee our safety. We had men trying to break into our dormitory by climbing in the windows. In addition to this there were no arrangements made at all for us to be fed - fortunately our team manager managed to get us into the equivalent of the NAAFI canteen so that we got breakfast, otherwise we wouldn't have eaten before we raced. The second night we were there Martin Pride (Weybridge RC) slept in our dormitory as a deterrent - when the banging on the door started again it soon stopped after he'd yelled 'What the bloody hell do you want?'. After a lot of sotto voce 'There's a guy in there' etc they cleared off and let us sleep.

  2. I remember the era very well. I was a GB junior is the 2x and we also competed at Mannheim on the docks and stayed at the barracks. We blagged the Carbon Cub from hart and Ballieu to use at the Junior Worlds in 1976 and were part of the junior team in Montreal in 1975 also with memories of the bus convoys loaded with armed guards going through red lights as an exercise against terrorism following Munich 1972 atrocities. The carbon cub was a prototype that went on to become carbocraft and then Janousek Racing. (I also remember a gun boat following the Israeli crews at Ratzeberg in 1974. The gun boat was to patrol, the old border between West and East Germany as I remember but looked a strange sight behind the umpires launch). I also remember the very first womens crew I saw rowing about 1970 which were boating from Oxford University but Weybridge and many other womens clubs have a long history of rowing. Just as well, since many clubs didnt admit women members until the 1970s which now seems ludicrous.

    1. Golly, gun boats following races. Not nice. Were you in the J2x in 1976, "Unknown"?

  3. Thank you Helena, this is fascinating. I rowed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and although there were many similarities there had also been quite a bit of progress in 4 years.
    Concerning your blog title, I'm living in France now and enjoy going with various members of my club to some of the weekend "expeditions" offered by different clubs. I don't think we've ever looked at the list to see our ranking. I can give you some gastronomical tips - great oysters at the Grau du Roi, for instance.
    Penny Vincent-Sweet (sorry can't work out how to sign in)

  4. Linda MacLachlan16 May 2016 at 20:55

    Seems incredible that women’s rowing has only been an Olympic sport since 1976 - not least since the Oxford and Cambridge women’s boat race was established decades earlier.

  5. Ha! ha! reading this brought back the memory of Gillian telling of her experience of the American`s, the next day at Mannheim. I was in the German barracks where the bunk beds where three high. Unfortunately one of my crew on the top bunk forgot that when he decided he needed to use the toilet in the middle of the night. He came crashing down on the hard floor waking everyone up (and probably the whole barracks). Also remembering the East German gunboat in Ratzenburg, coming out to meet us with a floodlight when we got too near to the border buoys in an evening outing.