The schisms within British Rowing were unmasked so mercilessly that you could even spot them in the same boat. Take the moment when a bedraggled men’s eight staggered out on to the pontoon at Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway, having claimed the bronze to conclude an Olympic regatta like no other.
Seven of the crew, all making their Games debuts, looked relieved to have secured a medal of any colour. But off to the side was Moe Sbihi, the one man with experience of what it meant to win gold. He was down on his haunches in desolation.
Sbihi’s mood was still thunderous as he arrived for his post-race interview.
The subtext to his anguish was self-evident: he had not given up five years of his life to trail home third. For somebody who had savoured the addictive rush of victory with the four in Rio, this was a bitter encore that underlined the feeling that British rowers’ winning mindset had gone horribly astray. “We’re a highly-funded sport within Team GB,” he said. “We should be doing better.”
Harsh questions must be asked of a sport that, since 2016, has managed to spend £24.6 million of Lottery funds on the grand total of a silver and a bronze. Rowing has been given more money to create an all-conquering team than even track cycling, the largest single contributor to British gold rushes at recent Games. And yet after leading medal tables in Beijing, London and Rio, they have plummeted to 14th in Tokyo, behind even Ireland and Croatia. This is not some rogue glitch in the matrix, but a full-system fiasco.
Results alone barely convey the depth of dysfunction into which British Rowing has fallen here. Beaten rowers have turned on their predecessors, with Matt Rossiter lambasting past champions in the coxless four, including Telegraph columnist James Cracknell, saying: “Those people will be really smug now. I hope they’re happy we have not continued the gold run.”
As if this were not bracing enough, Josh Bugajski, bowman for the eight, used his moment in the spotlight to make the incendiary accusation that former coach Jurgen Grobler would “destroy the soul” of his athletes, “destroy everything they had”. He spelt out his own ordeal under the East German taskmaster, alleging that for three years his life had been made a misery, that he was driven to the brink of financial ruin, that he only survived thanks to the love of his fiancée.
Bugajski calculated that he would come across as a courageous whistleblower exposing a damaged system. But his comments backfired. Three hours later, his own team-mates were turning against him, with Tom George dismissing him as an opportunistic renegade fortunate to have been selected.
“To sit there and say that Jurgen destroys people is pretty slanderous,” he said. “And from someone Jurgen offered a lifeline in his rowing career.” Oliver Wynne Griffifth was not prepared to show any solidarity either, arguing: “Within our crew, he is 100 per cent a lone voice.”
It is an unholy mess. This was the week when British Rowing, not content with merely failing to deliver, tore itself apart. The feuds multiplied so fast that you lost count: between generations, between crews, even between those sharing a boat. At the heart of it all was the complex inheritance bequeathed by Grobler.