Olympic Rowing Rivalries Feature One of Britain’s Most Beloved Sports

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It's fitting that Team GB's first 2012 gold medal came in rowing: The sport is one of Britain's passions. BBC commentators couldn't help but yell when Helen Glover and Heather Stanning rowed to victory in the women's pair event, and Princes William and Harry were on hand to watch, too.

The hometown crowd filling stands at Dorney Lake roars so loudly for British rowers that Australian coaches asked organizers to quiet it down.

"We kidded ourselves that there was no pressure," Glover told the BBC after the victory. "The last thing we said to each other was 'it's just for us, it's just for us,' but it was for the whole of the team and the whole of the country."

Seven days into the Games, with one more day of rowing competition to go, Britain had also won gold in women's double sculls, silver in men's lightweight fours and bronze in the men's eight, the men's pair and the men's single sculls, giving it the biggest total medal haul in rowing. (Among other rowing powerhouses, New Zealand had four medals, Germany and Australia had three, and Canada and the U.S. had two medals each.)

Team GB boats advanced to the finals in all 13 Olympic rowing events, with the lightweight men's and women's doubles posting the fastest times in their semifinal events (both go for gold on Aug. 4).

For the British, rowing is a matter of national pride, incorporating some of the country's favorite institutions and personalities. Along with cycling, it was one of Britain's best hopes for 2012 medals. As an Associated Press Olympic preview noted, "Rowing is the only sport in which Britain has won gold at every games since 1984, and the program has received $42 million in lottery and government funding during this Olympic cycle, an unprecedented figure."

Some of Britain's most beloved sports heroes are rowers. Just about everyone in the UK knows of Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. Starting with Redgrave's gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, they launched an era of British dominance that reached its apex at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Redgrave won his fifth gold medal. Pinsent won his fourth gold in 2004. Both were later knighted.

Those victories catapulted rowing into Britain's national consciousness. But the country's love of rowing goes back much farther than this Olympic cycle, past Redgrave and Pinsent and long before rowing became an Olympic sport in 1900.

As an island, Britain is a naturally boat-based culture. Although mankind has raced in boats almost since humans realized they could build such things, some of the earliest incarnations of competitive rowing were on England's rivers.

The "Doggett's Coat and Badge" race, for example, was first held in 1715 among watermen whose usual job was to ferry passengers across the mighty River Thames. Comedian Thomas Doggett started the race and awarded a coat and badge as prizes.

By the late 1700s, rowing clubs were holding organized competitions. One of the first was at Eton College in Windsor, now home of the Dorney Lake Olympic venue.

Americans took up the sport by the early 1800s, and rowing was among the first intercollegiate sports. American and British rowers have raced against each other since the 1830s, setting up a continuing rivalry.

Rowing is divided into two main forms: In sweep, each rower holds one oar, and each person in the boat rows on an alternating side. In sculling, each rower holds oars on both sides. Some kinds of sweep rowing include a coxswain, who steers the boat. The number in the boat ranges from one to nine.

The River Thames, on grand display throughout the 2012 Olympics, is at the heart of British rowing. It's home to the nation's two biggest annual races, the Henley Royal Regatta in early summer and the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race (often simply called "the Boat Race") in spring.

Held since 1839, Henley mixes rowing with celebrity and fashion. During the five-day event, a mix of enthusiasts heads to the historic town of Henley — which sits near a straight section of the Thames — for days of racing, cheering, eating, drinking and being seen.

Henley regatta patrons are divided into general-public and members-only areas. In the Stewards' Enclosure, only open to members of the regatta's elite club, "Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, and a tie or cravat," the official rules state. "Ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts with a hemline below the knee and will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind."

The first Oxford and Cambridge race goes back even earlier, to 1829. Two friends, one studying at each university, challenged each other to a race at Henley. The event happened sporadically after that and became a regular thing by 1856. The present-day course in London is 4 miles, 374 yards (6.8 km) — more than three times longer than a standard championship course's 2,000 meters.

It's hard to overestimate how important Oxford and Cambridge are to the sport of rowing, not only in Britain but worldwide. Fifteen rowers in this year's Olympics are Oxbridge veterans.

It's also significant that women rowers got Britain's first gold of the 2012 Games. In recent years, British women have joined their male counterparts as elites on the international scene, although (like the men) they have strong competition from nations including the U.S.

by Christy Karras

Top: British rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning never lost their lead during the Women's Pair Final. Their gold medal was Team GB's first of the 2012 London Olympics. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Right: A well-dressed crowd gathers along the Henley Reach stretch of the Thames for the Henley Royal Regatta, a highlight of both the social and the sports seasons in Britain. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

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