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Why Rowing Is Unique Among Team Sports[1]
by Thomas E. Weil[2]

Rowing is America’s oldest intercollegiate sport, and one of its least understood.  In 1876, it was the only college sport that had a place at our national Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and, in those days, it drew more spectators to its contests than any other team sport in the country.  The story of its rise as the first modern sport is closely tied to the story of its significant decline in relative popularity beginning in the late nineteenth century.  Rowing became one of the first team sports because rowing was already a part of everyday adult life when organized sport began to take hold.  It wasn’t very hard to get a boat race going when major cities were sited on rivers or coasts, and watermen provided one of the principal means of transport.  Rowing was a sport drawing tens of thousands to regattas long before most of the other team sports[3] had developed the adult interest and organized competition infrastructures that eventually put them ahead of rowing in the public eye.  Though overshadowed today by the game sports, rowing is very much alive, and playing its unique role in developing the characters of those who take up the oar. Rowing’s unique history and gifts give us reason to value and support it to a much greater extent than is currently appreciated.[4]

We have very good reason to be proud of what our rowing community does for this country.  Another summer Olympics is soon upon us, in Beijing, and the competition will be tough, especially because the Chinese have chosen to focus on rowing to harvest medals.  How do we stand?  Thanks to the coaches, the athletes, and the support of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Rowing Foundation and U.S. Rowing, not too badly.  At the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. men’s eight won gold, and the U.S. women’s eight won silver.  At the world rowing championships last year, the women won gold, and the men came in fourth.  So we’re right there in the hunt, and we owe a large debt of gratitude to those athletes and coaches who have devoted so much of themselves to showing the world what Americans are made of.

And what are we made of?  Let’s take a quick poll.  Do you work for a living?  Do you play games for a living – not in the metaphorical sense, which we all do sometimes, but actually play games for a living?

Well, it may come as a surprise to you that you have much more in common with rowers than you do with baseball, football or basketball players.  Why?  Because baseball, football, soccer and basketball, and every other team sport is, in its origins and appearance, a game, and rowing is, in its essence, work.

I am not here to criticize the game sports.  They have many more participants and fans than rowing, but that is because of the fundamental difference between games and rowing.  Entertainment always trumps work when you’re looking for fun, and the game sports, above all, are entertaining to play and fun to watch.  They’re meant to be like that.  There is nothing in rowing to compare to a goal scored with a bicycle kick, a no-hitter, a 3-pointer from mid-court or a dazzling catch in the end zone.  The best game players have unparalleled skills and coordination.  Many are in excellent physical shape, and some play hard enough to be exhausted by the end of the game.

But if you are looking for a team sport that values and requires above all else some of the most difficult qualities to teach or instill in a person, and some of the best personal qualities to carry into one’s life – the capacity for hard, unrelenting, exhausting work, and the disciplines and virtues that attach to that, including dedication, sacrifice, courage and selflessness - nothing does this better than rowing.  Period.  No argument.  Because, in its essence, rowing is, more than any other team sport, based predominantly upon the disciplines and values of work, and not upon the eye-catching moves or intricate plays of games.

You need go no further than the origins of the various team sports to see the basic truth in this insight.  Each of the games that we’ve mentioned originated in children’s activities that were taken up by adults for exercise, for fun, for the entertainment of others, and, eventually, for profit.  They came to showcase an individual’s athletic skills, and the more skilled the individual athlete at throwing, hitting, catching, passing, running, dribbling, kicking, or shooting, the more fame, and, ultimately, fortune, he could demand.  That these game sports could be cribb’d, cabin’d and confined in arenas to which spectators could gain entrance only by paying a fee gave rise to an increasingly commercial pyramid of sporting empires, ranging from the sales of games equipment and fan memorabilia to the ownership of teams and the revenues generated by broadcasting games.

The popularity of these game sports has two significant bases, the high school and college athlete base, and the fan base, and it is the fan base that provides the overwhelming support for these games.  Why?  Because games are entertaining.  It is a perfectly natural objective to want to be entertained.  There is nothing wrong with watching great athletes perform extraordinary individual feats, with cheering for a favorite team, or with taking a turn at bat in a picnic pick-up game.  All provide welcome breaks from the hard slog of real life, and, for that very reason, while the game player may learn many valuable lessons from his sport, no team sport is as fitted to preparing us for the daily grind as rowing.

Indeed, if anything, the game sports would remove us from reality.  I find it telling, and modestly troubling, that acts that would not be tolerated in real life are encouraged and applauded in game sports.  Stealing?  We praise game athletes for stealing balls and bases.  Faking?  We laud those who can “fake out” the opposition.  We rhapsodize over “curveballs.” and “change-ups.”  One of our favorite scoring plays is the “quarterback sneak.”  But, in the lives to which we then return, none of us want to be thrown a curveball, or to be the victims of stealing, fakes or sneaking.  Why do we accept this behavior on the playing field?  Because it’s only a game.

Rowing is not, and has never been, a game.  Rowing was not designed to be entertaining.  Rowing was brutally hard life and death work before it was ever a sport, and, even as it became a sport, it lost little of that single minded quality.  Rowing has been an integral part of human activity since before recorded history.  It moved and defended empires in the Mediterranean and the North Sea for over a millennia, and it provided the critical power for naval mobility as late as the early nineteenth century in some venues. Wherever winds, tides and currents conspired to defeat the use of the sail, whether across lakes, harbors, bays or oceans, until the advent of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine, rowing provided the prime manner of transport for people and goods in the pre-Industrial Age.  It was the mainstay of the waterman who ferried passengers across rivers without a handy bridge, the lighterman who off-loaded cargo ships at anchor that could not manoeuvre into the docks and wharves of its destination, and the pilot craft that raced to meet incoming vessels.

Whether fishermen with nets, or hunters with harpoons, rowing was also the means of livelihood for those who harvested the seas.  From the story of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee to Moby Dick, the hard life of the oarsman has been a staple of western culture and literacy.  And for those in peril on the sea, well into the twentieth century, no sight could be as welcome as an oared lifeboat butting through breaking waves to rescue a shipwrecked crew.

For all of its hardscrabble nature, rowing had a few bright spots, at least for the spectators in the early days of organized sport.  The oldest continual recorded sporting event in England is the sculling race for Doggetts Coat and Badge, established in 1715 for London’s watermen. The most spectacular annual waterborne events of two of the world’s principal waterside cities, Venice and London, featured great barges with crews of festively costumed oarsmen.  Venice gave the term regatta to rowing.

But these celebrations of an activity that was embedded in the daily routine were not the norm.  Given the life and death quality that often attached to the hard living of those who rowed, their place at the bottom of the working (not to mention social) ladders, and their own inability or desire to glorify in any way their desperately poor and fragile way of life, it is somewhat amazing that rowing ever appealed to anyone as a way to spend one’s leisure time.  And, indeed, when it first captured the fancy of the newly rich and urbanized yuppies of London, Boston, New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the 19th century, the pleasure found in rowing was more about social outings than competition. But competitive rowing soon overtook the social excursions, and the first modern sport was on its way.

Rowing, the legacy of working men, demands the unremitting dedication of body and mind, heart and soul in a way required by no other team sport.  The seeming ease of the rower is an illusion compounded by the extraordinary grace and efficiency of motion of a good crew.  In fact, rowing requires the most intense simultaneous expenditure of effort and endurance in team athletics.

Added to the repetitive full pressure use of every major muscle group and the heroic testing of aerobic and lactic limits is the need to perform in perfect synchronicity with every teammate on every stroke, to be exquisitely aware of the boat’s pace and timing, to adjust one’s blade and stroke to the vagaries of wind and wave, and to do all this while perched on a moving seat in a craft that may be rocking from side to side.

And during a race there is no relief.  Unlike the game sports, in which plays last for seconds, there are no time outs, or halves, or quarters, or innings, there are no substitutions or water breaks and, for better or worse, there is no coaching.  Few athletes from other team sports could keep up with the work of a rower.  It makes you wonder why anyone would row.

There may be as many reasons as there are rowers.  Certainly, there is great appeal in achieving the extraordinary moment when the boat reaches perfect harmony and seems to flow effortlessly.  Or in the setting of lake or river, in the morning fog, in the twilight or moving over a soft blanket of late spring snow.  Or in the unparalleled sense of team-ness given by eight rowers moving in perfect unison.  These are some of the joys unique to rowing .

And then there are the principal lessons that are taught by rowing, which give some sense of what gets put into a rower.  Other team sports study playbooks and work individuals out on their particular roles and when they may expect to get into a game, and practice trick plays to take advantage of an opponents vulnerabilities.  Rowing utilizes few of these practices, and all are secondary to the focus on building a fantastically hard working, courageous, enduring, dedicated, selfless, team player, with each individual going through the same workout as any other. You couldn’t prepare better to be a great a partner in business or in life.  Start, and do your best ceaselessly, without let up or rest, stretching yourself to your physical and mental limits, knowing that you are relying on every other teammate to do the same on every stroke, as they are relying on you.  That’s it.

There is a reason that the Chinese are putting so many of their marbles in the rowing ring.  These are some of the very qualities that are driving the incredible achievements of that nation today, as they have driven the best of what America has accomplished over its history.  So the next time you see a racing shell on the river, be glad for what that means for the rowers and their community.  And when a resume crosses your desk with “rowing” on it, keep it handy.  It marks an individual who knows and practices the value of pure, hard teamwork without playing games.


[1]   This essay was adapted from remarks made by the author initially on December 8, 2006 at the Joy of Sculling 14th Annual Coaches Conference in Saratoga Springs NY, and further developed in remarks made at the 4th Rowing History Forum on March 9, 2008 at Mystic Seaport CT, and at the annual Yale-Harvard lane draw regatta luncheon on June 12, 2008 in New London CT.  The author thanks Bill Miller for his thoughtful comments on this work.

[2]   Author, Beauty and the Boats – Art and Artistry in Early Rowing (2006); founding member and director, Friends of Rowing History; Visiting Curator for Rowing History, Mystic Seaport; Trustee, River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames; life member, North American Society for Sport History; director, Yale Crew Association.

[3]   The only team sport that can contest with rowing for being the first modern sport is cricket, in which organized regular cricket play predates most organized competitive rowing, but cricket did not make any substantial headway outside the boundaries of the British Empire, as rowing did, and rowing had more early international competition than cricket, including being on the program in the first modern Olympic Games.  Both cricket and rowing could boast of organized regular competition from the early 1700’s (Doggett’s Coat and Badge race for novice watermen, the oldest continual organized and recorded annual sport contest, was established in 1715), but team sport rowing did not become organized until the early 1800’s.  Rowing was embedded at English schools and universities and in rowing clubs by the 1820’s, with British open regattas and professional championships being contested continuously from the 1830’s.  Canadian and Australian regattas date back to the 1810’s.  Though some very famous rowing races took place earlier, organized American boat clubs, associations and racing date to the 1830’s.   None of the other game sports reached critical mass in form and function before the 1840’s in England and the 1850’s in the United States.

[4]   See also Thomas E. Weil, “The Dangerously Neglected Legacy of Rowing”, which was originally published in a slightly different version in the June, Season 2000-2001 Rowing Victoria Magazine (Vol. 2 Edition 3), and is currently posted on www.rowinghistory.net .

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