The inquest into British Rowing’s dismal Tokyo display began in earnest after a solitary bronze on the final day of competition at the Sea Forest Waterway meant Britain’s rowers registered their worst Olympic performance for 49 years.
The debate is likely to reach into the heart of the culture at the organisation and focus on the decision to allow Jürgen Gröbler, who had coached eight gold-medal crews for Great Britain over seven Olympics, to leave a year before these Games. The German’s legacy, though, is not wholly positive, with Josh Bugajski, a member of the men’s eight who won bronze on Friday, saying in the aftermath of the final that the German coach “destroyed the souls” of those he took against.
“I’m going to be brave and say something that the crew don’t want me to say. I cracked open a bottle of champagne when Jürgen retired,” Bugajski told the Telegraph and the Times.
“I had a very dark three years under him. And I think I would be a coward if I didn’t say that on behalf of the guys who are stuck at home, because they got a darker side of Jürgen and aren’t in the team.
“There were some people he just took a disliking to. What he did to them was destroy them – destroy their soul, destroy everything they had. He had complete power.”
Bugajski’s crewmate Mo Sbihi, on the other hand, described Gröbler as a winner who “knew how to elevate people” and there is little doubt that the German, who started his career with British Rowing by coaching Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent to golds in 1992 and 1996, helped the organisation get the most out of its funding from UK Sport.
The £24.6m it received over the Tokyo Olympic cycle was more than any other sport yet Britain’s rowers failed to pick up a gold medal for the first time since the 1980 Games in Moscow and their contribution to the medals table is poorer than any since the 1972 Games.
British Rowing’s performance director, Brendan Purcell, told the BBC the event had proved “heartbreaking for the athletes” but added that “significant changes” would be made in order to return to winning ways at the Paris Games in 2024.
UK Sport’s chief executive, Sally Munday, said that, like all sports, the performance would be reviewed but saw plenty of positives. “I totally understand why people would ask the question about the two medals, but I think we need to put this into perspective of the bigger picture for rowing,” she told the PA news agency.
“They made eight finals, which is more than any other nation, and had six fourth-place finishes, and they have got probably the youngest and least experienced squad that they have had in the last 20 years. And I think you need to put all of that in context.
“I think there’s huge promise for rowing in Paris in three years’ time. I’m confident British Rowing will have a look at how they are going to convert those fourth-place finishes into podium places, and I think they have got the knowledge and expertise to do that.”
Dame Katherine Grainger, who won medals at the last five Olympic Games, was also keen to emphasise the positive. “If you look at the medal haul, it’s very small compared to especially the last two, three, four Olympic Games, and it is disappointing on some level,” she told the BBC. “But, at the same time, we knew after Rio there was the biggest change we have ever seen from not just athletes – I think we only had eight athletes coming to this Games who’d ever been to a Games before. We’ve never had anything like that.”
The double Olympic champion James Cracknell, meanwhile, was less conciliatory. “We got three gold, two silver in Rio. We come away from Tokyo, £27m of investment in British Rowing, with one silver and one bronze,” he said. “At a time when the national budget is under pressure from so many different areas, is that a good return on investment?”
The men’s eight of Bugajski, Jacob Dawson, Tom George, Sbihi, Charles Elwes, Oliver Wynne-Griffith, James Rudkin and Tom Ford were at least able to double the medals tally on the final day, taking third behind New Zealand and Germany and adding to the silver won by the men’s quadruple sculls on Wednesday.