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Not just salmon and champagne

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Martin Gough | 08:25 UK time, Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Sometimes at Henley in the first week of July, you can imagine one reveller turning to another and, over the smoked salmon and champagne, asking why there are people rowing.

Henley Royal Regatta, with its blazers (which must not be removed even in the middle of a heat wave), hats and flowing dresses (which must not be above the knee), deckchairs and pints of Pimms and lemonade, is arguably more famous as a social occasion than a sporting event.

It's a very good sporting event too, though, and especially so this year, with the possibility of three Olympic champions not even making it to the finals.

Clockwise from left: Henley spectators; Alan Campbell with coach Bill Barry, Hampton School eight

Last year, the Great Britain squad were kept out of action as they prepared for Beijing. This year - although August's World Championships are a clear priority - six GB crews, and single sculler Alan Campbell, have entered.

Norwegian sculler Olaf Tufte will have to get past Campbell in Saturday's semi-finals. Alan has beaten him twice in World Cup events this year, and he's pretty fired up. As he tweeted recently: "I'm so excited I could pee myself."

Meanwhile, Pete Reed and Andy Hodge hope that the advantage of home water will help them overcome New Zealand's Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, who beat them handily in the last World Cup regatta in Munich.

There are plenty of differences from international, six-lane racing as Henley is head-to-head, over a slightly longer distance and with formidable wooden booms, rather than plastic buoys, to keep you in your lane.

In Munich, they raced as Great Britain in the men's coxless pairs. At Henley, Reed and Hodge will be rowing as Molesey Boat Club and Leander Club in the Silver Goblets & Nickalls' Challenge Cup.

You could view it as an anachronism that prevents the casual sports fan being able to work out what's going on. You may have a point, although it is also an enjoyable nugget of history in an event that dates back to 1839.

It's not all about elite sportsmen and women. (Yes, it's about women too - they've been around since 1993. Competing!) The Royal has three events for club crews and two for students.

For some of them, just getting through last Friday's qualifiers was an achievement. Others will have their sights on making it as far as they can through five days of racing. (And some of them were in action last Sunday at 430am, when 170 people swam the course in what has become yet another Henley tradition).

Campbell's club-mates at Tideway Scullers School will have high hopes in the Thames Cup for eights after Leander, who beat them in the final with a crew of GB development rowers last year, were controversially asked not to enter club events this season.

If you're taking part, donning your best outfit to watch or sitting in the office, manically hitting the refresh button on the results feed, I'd like to hear from you. Who are you watching and what are you hoping for?

It's a little late but the same goes for Henley Women's Regatta, which took place two weeks ago. Did you take part? Did you enjoy the experience? Did you manage to avoid the coaches on bikes hurtling down the towpath?

I'll be at Henley over the weekend and using Twitter (but only in areas where I'm allowed to use my mobile phone, obviously). I'm pretty excited too, but not quite as excited as Alan.

(Photo of Alan Campbell above by Sophia Hassou)

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