A populist vision for US rowing

The women’s “eight” rowing entry representing the United States is poised to make history in London.

These eight stellar athletes are heavily favored to win the gold, besting the British home team and the rest of the world for the sixth year in a row, a feat that has never been accomplished before.

The women are exemplars of strength, teamwork, and discipline, but few know their names. Though living the Olympic Dream, they are largely unknown, scraping by for living expenses through a combination of part-time jobs and support from family and friends. The national governing body that is charged with overseeing this majestic sport and supporting these extraordinary athletes, US Rowing, is hobbled by financial challenges and lack of vision. 

At the turn of the last century, it was commonplace for crowds of 100,000 people (gamblers included) to line the banks in Chicago or New York to watch two scullers – frequently consummate showmen – put on a display of power, grace, and cutthroat competition.

With the decline of workingmen’s rowing clubs after World War I, rowing survived the 20th century thanks largely to the efforts of small groups of privileged white men, perpetuating a system that was operated by and for the fortunate.   It survived the pollution of our rivers and the invention of the outboard motor largely because those with resources recognized there is something about rowing that nurtures leadership skills and encourages civic responsibility. It produces people who aren’t afraid to invest the time and effort necessary for success in highly competitive environments.

Only in the past 30 years has rowing begun to return to its populist roots, becoming accessible again to everyday Americans, both men and women – the 99 percent, if you will. As rivers emerge from their industrial haze, they are once again a viable choice for sport and recreation, especially in cities that are short of shared public space. 

Communities are also beginning to recognize the urgent need for sports that have positive psycho-social and health outcomes. Rowing burns more calories per minute than any other sport and “being in the same boat” builds real human connections that are a critical antidote to our age of physical isolation and social media, driven by digital rather than human connections.

High school, college, and community boathouses are starting to pop up around the country in cities beyond those inhabited by the social and economic elite. Oklahoma City filled an empty drainage ditch to create a rowing venue.  Sarasota is digging out an old gravel pit to make the “best rowing course in the world.” New Haven is investing $26 million to rebuild a community boathouse that fell out of use in the 1930s.   

But more is needed if rowing is to be restored to its recognized place in sport. In an age where expectations for engagement and outreach are high, rowing must adapt or it will slide into obscurity.

Rowing’s long history of exclusive membership committees, clubs, and tradition has been more of a burden than a resource for US Rowing. A tiny staff and a volunteer board have struggled to remain solvent rather than growing and keeping pace with a changing society.  The sport has stayed frozen in time.

US Rowing must now drive change. NASCAR reinvented TV coverage and sponsorship deals, so its participants are not left to fend for themselves.  US Rowing must now play a tough game of catch-up with sports like track and America’s Cup sailing so that rowing’s dedicated athletes can benefit from innovation and modern marketing. 

Rowing at the Olympics highlights the challenge. We can continue to invest billions in sports that in too many cases leave participants damaged, that perpetuate physical domination at the expense of individual growth. Or US Rowing’s leadership can do the work to grow public awareness, reinforcing the value of teamwork, dedication, and health — the lessons of a sport that challenges us to perform at our individual limit.

Meet the Author

 Bruce Harold Smith is executive director of Community Rowing  Inc.in Brighton, a 27-year-old nonprofit organization that promotes rowing for recreation and fitness. He was recently named a member of US Rowing’s high performance committee and will coach the US lightweight men’s eight in Bulgaria Aug. 15-19.