Rowing holds a special place in the history of the modern Olympics as a founding sport managed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1896. While bad weather postponed the first Olympic rowing race from 1896 to 1900, World Rowing was the first international sports federation to join the modern Olympic movement, helping to legitimise the rebirth of the ancient Greek sporting tournament. However, that tradition appears at first glance to be shaken, with World Rowing announcing their support to shorten the Olympic distance from 2,000 metres to 1,500 metres due to the challenging logistics of the Los Angeles 2028 venue.
Los Angeles 2028 was initially planned in Lake Perris State Recreation Area in Riverside County, which could have hosted the standard distance, but it was deemed too far away. It was 80 miles from the main host city, and the organisers were also fretting the cost of building additional infrastructure, including another athletes’ village. So instead, Long Beach is now the preferred location, sitting at the heart of Los Angeles County, much closer to the action, thereby making it more attractive to sponsors. It will also be more cost-efficient, with the area also hosting handball, triathlon, open-water swimming, BMX and water polo.
Long Beach actually hosted rowing in the 1932 LA Olympics at the full 2,000-metre distance, but construction of a bridge since has partly obstructed the first quarter of the course, so only three lanes, rather than the required eight, are available at full length. It is hard to state how massive this change will be for rowers.
Unlike in athletics, there are no other distance categories for rowing, with all athletes training for that one specific length. Based on the Tokyo Olympics, a 2,000-metre race could span across seven minutes, the winning woman singles time, to 5 minutes 24 seconds for the winning men’s Eights.
A 1,500-metre competition could result in regattas lasting nearer to four minutes, slanting the sport to becoming more of a sprint event and disadvantaging the more aerobic, endurance-based athletes. The new 1,500-metre distance would also make it the shortest Olympic distance ever, with the second shortest being 1,750 metres in the 1900 Paris Olympics. Historically, race lengths did vary, and domestic regattas continue to have a range of distances dependent on the nature of the local river, such as the historical Henley Royal Regatta in the UK, which runs 2,112 metres, or the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, which goes for a whopping 6,800 metres.
Ironically, the need to regulate and standardise the distance of rowing at the elite level was why the sport body World Rowing (then called FISA) was founded, and they settled on 2,000 metres. This has been the standard Olympic length since 1948, with countless domestic competitions modelled around that distance.
World Rowing President Jean-Christophe Rolland himself admitted that the situation is not ideal, saying that “we know the specificity of the effort has to be a minimum of five minutes” and insisted that this would just be a one-off for the 2028 Olympics. While international competitions had had to compromise in the past, including in 2006, when the course for the Asian Games was shortened to just 1,000 metres in Doha, elite rowing completely centres around the Olympics. Indeed, funding for many national rowing bodies is structured around “Olympic cycles”.
The annual World Championships and the three international World Cups, currently at 2,000 metres, are all viewed as stepping stones for the Olympics. So, changing the distance for 2028 would lead all serious coaches and athletes post-Paris 2024 to restructure their training regime on optimising performance at the 1,500-metre distance. The aforementioned competitions are also often pre-qualifiers for the Olympics, so it seems odd that those second-tier competitions will be at a different distance.
One takeaway could be that it points to the uneven influence of the Olympics pulling on the sport of rowing, to the point where it can change the Olympic distance at will to fit the needs of getting exposure and sponsorship. World Rowing’s financial situation certainly admits it, describing their accounts as “challenging” and “highly dependent on Olympic revenue … to generate broadcast income”.
The Olympics themselves have lost a lot of money recently due to the pandemic. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with COVID-19 resulting in no spectators, ticket sale losses alone cost $800m. Sponsorship potential, worth $200m per brand, was also limited in a purely digital format, with Fortune reporting a loss on return of investment of at least 40 percent. With sponsors burning their fingers in the last Olympics, they would want a more apparent return in investment before committing again.
Perhaps the more generous conclusion might be to praise World Rowing for its hard-headed pragmatism and reform-minded intentions in a sector often seen as dominated by exclusive private schools (with only 12 out of 105 schools registered for British Rowing from state school institutions) and elite universities with all the baggage of tradition.
Visibility is essential to make the sport more popular, especially if it can feed business support to help develop the grassroots and community rowing and break away from a cycle of community clubs struggling for serious funding. As triple Olympic Gold Medallist Andy Hodge observed, “Without proper investment, community sport can easily be overlooked.” It also matters at the elite level. A professional team utterly dependent on public or lottery funding will have little incentive to market themselves to the masses, with funding instead linked to getting Olympic medals. Indeed, most Olympic rowers are paid notoriously little even with public funding, with the British Olympic champion Will Satch struggling to get a mortgage because his income was considered too unreliable.
Right now, rowing is not yet sufficiently accessible outside of school or university, nor is it a great spectator sport, hence why it performs so poorly financially. Compare this with CrossFit, founded just 21 years ago, a multidiscipline branded fitness regimen that includes indoor rowing, with a laser-eyed focus on building a spectator audience that made $4b in annual revenue in 2015. CrossFit is unafraid to shape its competition formats to suit broadcasters and invest considerable production value to turn their athletes into highly visible role models. This also benefits the athletes, with the best training full-time without state backing, and their flagship annual CrossFit Games sharing a prize pool worth $2.5m, with champions getting $310,000 each.
The struggle stems from rowing’s history with “amateurism”, the reluctance to open the sport towards financial gain. UK rowing bodies in the 20th century often restricted athletes in competitions who had a job related to rowing or were paid to row, and it was only in 1988 that the IOC formally allowed paid professional athletes to compete.
Rowing should not shy away from making the sport more commercially attractive in the modern era. It needs to depend on more than just schools and universities to feed athletes into a state or lottery-funded training programme, with little prospect of financial reward after. By enabling a shorter rowing course, World Rowing might be enabling elite rowing to take place in more places, given how difficult it is to build a two-kilometre rowing lake. World Rowing is also proposing other further radical shakeups, including their intention to introduce coastal rowing into the Olympic programme, with mixed male and female teams, although at the considerable cost of removing lightweight rowing.
The Olympics have the power to inspire the next generation of people. Taking up sport can change lives for the better, if done right, so World Rowing should be credited for being willing to take risks to build its movement. Rowers will now await approval from Long Beach City Council on whether to become the official host during the 2028 LA Olympics. If approved, perhaps this could be the start of further reform to bring a venerable sport into the 21st century.