A good piece of historical writing encompasses not merely dates and events, but personalities, anecdotes, good supporting materials, and the skill to weave it all together. Chris Dodd’s new rowing history “Pieces of Eight,” which focuses on the short, but eventful and successful Bob Janousek era in Great Britain from 1970 – 1976 is all of these things: an engaging history of a critical point in British rowing history where that nation's rowing culture was turned towards a new, modern approach to rowing internationally.
This is a very fine little book. Chris Dodd, the rowing correspondent for the Guardian newspaper and co-founder of the River & Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames, began covering rowing around the time that Bob Janousek arrived in the UK in 1969 and has since been steeped in the sport and its personalities; indeed, he calls his book a “historical memoir,” since he was a direct observer of many of the events he describes.
Given the UK’s place as one of the many cradles of rowing, with its long history of schoolboy and university rowing, not to mention Henley Royal Regatta, it is difficult to believe that the UK could have at any point in history been not very competitive at rowing. And yet, when Janousek arrived in the UK after winning an Olympic medal in the Eight for Czechoslovakia, the UK had managed to win just a single Olympic medal in rowing since 1948.
Janousek begins coaching the British in 1970, hired as a national coach tasked to bring order to a system dominated by old club rivalries and relationships, and in 1973 the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) offers to support him in his endeavor to form a squad-based selection system for the Men’s Eight. So it was, in late 1973, that Janousek hand-picked a squad of athletes to train with him (at the time, an affront to the more traditional club-based selection methods) with the objective of boating a fast eight at the 1974 World Championships.
The initial meeting with his squad of selected men says as much about Bob Janousek as it does about the state of British rowing at the time, in the remembrance of squad member Lenny Robertson:
“‘He came in, sat down, and we were waiting for words of wisdom. He said to us, You English are fat like pigs. You’re soft, the rest of the world laugh at you. You’ve got this great tradition of rowing but you haven’t produced anything since Second World War. The world’s moved on. Anybody who sees a GB crew in their heat just ticks them off as one they could beat. This squad I’m going to put together is not going to be jolly boating weather. It’s going to be hard.'”
Janousek brings new methods, longer training sessions and small boat work to the squad, and slowly turns his group of athletes not only into believers, but into a fully functioning, very competitive eight, one that fulfills its early promise by capturing a silver medal at the 1974 World Championships, just behind the USA.
As Dodd relates this journey, he reveals a great deal about Janousek’s methods and his motivations, but also delves into the personalities in and around British rowing at the time, and it is fascinating stuff. Janousek’s first squad was a real culture clash of club rowers with Eton and Oxford-educated men, and when one adds in ferment of the 70s and the particular character of the group, you have arguments and fist fights, but also some stupendous athletic achievements along the way. (And it is fun to learn, that in some ways, things in rowing never change; here, Dodd captures a moment, after the Lucerne Regatta in 1974, that most folks who have been around rowing a while would recognize: “The celebrations were only marred by an unimaginative demonstration of Swiss humour when the Lucerne police shot tear gas into the tent by the Rotsee when the athletes’ party was in full flow.”)
The crew disbands and changes in 1975, but Janousek weathers the storm and a somewhat less successful competitive season that year, and hits the 1976 Olympic campaign at full stride; the crew is successful all year, and leads the highly-favored East Germans for 1800 meters in the Olympic Final before settling for a second silver medal in three years (these silver medals are the “Pieces of Eight” in Dodd’s witty, punny title.)
And then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone; Bob Janousek stepped away from coaching after the 1976 Olympics, feeling he had done in six years all he could do as the national head coach.
Since he began work in Britain in 1970 his three levels of national coaching awards were in place, the first multi-lane course in Britain had opened, the performance of youth rowing was on the rise, there were advances in boat and oar design, some sponsorship had been acquired for the national team, clubs had seen the light of cooperation with each other and with a national squad conceived out of failure, and the sport’s administration and team management had become second to none. […]
But he also realised that it wasn’t in his power to go further. As he told Neil Wilson in the Sports Review, ‘We would have to widen the base because all we’ve done now is artificially push up a column rather than build a pyramid. Now the column has hit the top.’
Janousek’s departure does nothing to change the fact that he moved British rowing forward tremendously, and in effect laid the groundwork for the resurgence of British rowing from the late 1970s to today. Indeed, particular mention might be made of one of the early acolytes of Bob Janousek and an early proponent of his methods: a young lightweight sculler and coach from Marlow named Mike Spracklen.
Dodd also does not spare the conversation about the lingering bitterness that the Janousek crews of the era have on the topic of the Eastern Bloc rowers, particularly East Germany, and the subject of doping. While the controversy over “would they/wouldn’t they” might rage endlessly, more than a few of the members of the GB ’76 Olympic crew hold the feeling that they were robbed of gold by a crew that was not clean.
Throughout this book, Dodd is superb in giving athletes, coaches, journalists and others from the period voice and act, which makes the book extremely lively, even as friends and crewmates agree and disagree about what may have actually happened. Dodd also allows for the “authentic” voices of participants, as in this passage:
‘I came down to the boathouse with a plaster cast on my leg and said to Bob that I didn’t think I could row. He said, No, you can’t row. I asked if I could go out on the launch with him and watch. He said, No. I called him a wanker. He said, How can you call chief senior national coach bloody wanker? He was quite put out. But he did take me out on the launch with him.’
The book will be of enjoyment not only to rowing history buffs, but also to athletes and coaches. In this short, dense volume Dodd has captured all of the familiar and exhilarating push-and-pull of a disparate group of individuals attempting to achieve outstanding results, and it is well worth a read.
The book can be purchased via the River and Rowing Museum’s online store here: http://rrm.co.uk/visit/shop/pieces-of-eight