November sees one of Britain’s biggest rowing races, celebrating a sport in which we lead the world. But this is the true story of how one oarsman was denied his dream of Olympic goldby Josh Raymond / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few kilometres to the north of Munich there is a man-made lake. Its banks are treeless and greyed by the sun, and the water is strangely clear. A concrete grandstand runs part way down one side, and at the northeastern end are wooden hangars: an inaccurate suggestion of aircraft. Aerial photographs give a sense of inversion, of a sky-blue landing strip slashed diagonally over fields. The lake is Oberschleissheim. It was built for the rowing and canoeing events at the Munich Olympic Games of 1972 and has hosted international competitions ever since.
In the spring of 2000 Bobby Thatcher is there, rowing in the British eight at a World Cup regatta. He will tell me years later that he remembers the heat. The other sensations—his pulse pounding in his ears, the mingling smells of his crewmates’ sweat or the adrenal nausea as the cox orders the boat to be backed onto the start pontoons—are too commonplace to mention. Racing in an eight is always about fear.
Sixty feet long, less than two feet wide and made out of the same ultra-light carbon fibre as a Formula One racing car, it is the biggest and fastest rowing boat. In a pair or a four, Bobby says, you are in control, but the eight is in control of you. The first tenth of the 2,000-metre course will be a sprint to generate speed, and the rest a fight to maintain it as muscles flood with lactic acid and capillaries in the lungs burst open. The crew that slows down the least will win. It is about Old Testament-level pain, and praying that this won’t be the time it kills you. The mental focus required is absolute.
Bobby is sitting in the bow seat, furthest back, and he looks over his shoulder to check the boat is straight in the lane. White buoys stretch away in rank and file under the sun. In the final 100m they turn red, but that’s too far away for Bobby to see. Perhaps he looks around for a moment too long—the cox has the boat well-aligned after all—but in that minute’s heated stillness before the start he sees two figures sitting on a towel on the sun-scorched bank of the lake. Immediately, his attention is diverted. The figures are women, with tanned skin and white-blonde hair, and they are naked except for bikini bottoms. The women are kissing each other and touching each other’s breasts, apparently oblivious to the men in rowing boats right in front of them. The men are oblivious too, staring straight ahead. All the men but one.