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Rowing and English Culture – Part 1

Henley Regatta

 The oldest rowing regatta in the world is the Henley Regatta which takes place on the famous River Thames that flows through London. This royal event first took place in 1839 and is a five day event that not only celebrates rowing but is just as much a social occasion for the rich and famous.

The Henley Royal Regatta is firmly on the elite social calendar of England, and like other great English social events it has its own dress codes for both men and women. All this pose one great question, is English rowing more about social climbing than sport? 

In this blog we hope to discover if this is true, and that rowing in England is just a toff’s sport, and that the English Upper Classes rule the roost as far as rowing is concerned. At first glance the beautifully manicured lawns of Henley and the secluded private boating lake of Eton College does point to our original question as being accurate.

These stereotypes of English rowing may have once been true, but in modern day England they are a little outdated. This is England of another time, a hundred or so years ago when many different ideas and principles were still dominant.

However, rowing as a sport in England has taken president over social climbing and things are very different today. It is true there is today an elitist agenda to English rowing, but not based on social position but very much on sporting performance.

1984 Olympic Crew

Perhaps the catalyst for all this change was the Great Britain Olympic Rowing Crew of 1984. An English rower was to change all concept of what English rowing was all about. A man who was educated in a comprehensive school and had never seen a dormitory in his life was to go on and beat all-comers in his rowing career. Steve Redgrave was successful in winning gold in five consecutive Olympic games in rowing events and was the catalyst for attracting top English athletes into the sport previously run by old university chums. And now the governing body of English rowing were not as concerned about the old alma mater network, as actually selecting the best athletes to represent their country.

New Initiatives

The American men’s eight celebrate gold at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Since the 1984 Olympic Crew’s great success, a mixture of both government and commercial programs were introduced in England and Great Britain to promote rowing and accept diversity into the sport. And just to highlight the success that these initiatives have had, over fifty percent of the 2012 Olympic British team were state educated. Sporting programs such as Sporting Giants have been instrumental in turning British rowing into an open and welcoming sport. And many of the current top-flight rowers in the country today actually learned how to row through these great programs and initiatives.

We continue our investigation into how English culture and rowing have been intertwined in part two. We take a look at how rowing first became popular in Britain and who were the first people to enjoy the pastime before it really became a sport.