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Glittering gathering of Olympians at Henley 2012
June 27, 2012
source: Henley Royal Regatta

One of the three surviving Olympic rowing medallists from 1948, an Olympic champion from three decades ago - who will be in the middle of the action at London 2012 - and another who will be competing at Henley this year are among the 170 rowing Olympians who will gather at the Royal Regatta on Sunday.

Although no oarsmen or women at this year's regatta will compete at the Games - which begin in exactly one month's time, with rowing taking place 15 miles away at Dorney Lake - Henley's ties to the Olympic movement remain strong.

Paul Bircher rowed in the Great Britain men's eight, which took silver 64 years ago, when the Olympic Regatta was raced over the Henley course. Now 83 years old, he attended Henley almost every year from 1946 until five years ago.

Richard Budgett, a Regatta steward, won Olympic gold in a coxed four with Sir Steve Redgrave in 1984 but he thinks rowing in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley was tougher. He is the Chief Medical Officer for London 2012, running a team of 200 medical volunteers across all sports.

Rowley Douglas, who coxed the GB eight to gold in Sydney in 2000, is competing at this year's Regatta, having made a competitive comeback two years ago. He was unsuccessful this year in a bid to regain the cox's seat for the Olympic regatta.

In all, there are thought to be about 270 living former rowing Olympians. 170 of them have accepted invitations from the Regatta to watch the racing on Finals Day.

"One hundred and seventy is a pretty amazing collection," said Chris Baillieu, an Olympic silver medallist and Henley Steward, who organised the event.

"It's a way of linking Henley to its past as it has been an Olympic venue twice, which is unique."

Paul Bircher and Michael Lapage from the British eight of 1948 will be the oldest Olympian at the event on Sunday. Another crew member, Chris Barton, lives in New Zealand.

"My wife and I attended every year until five years ago as we lived in Sussex and it wasn't too far," said Mr Bircher. "Now we live in the depths of Somerset and it's too much of an ordeal to come up to Henley with a picnic and everything."

Looking back to 1948 he remembers a tough race against the United States of America, who rowed Great Britain down to take gold, but also the camaraderie afterwards at the rowing dinner, something he fears may be lacking in the modern era.

"We expected a tough race and it was. We came off the start well and for a short while were in the lead but unfortunately we couldn't hold on.

"I've watched all the World Cups on television this year and it is so much more serious now. We rowed because we enjoyed it; we wanted to win if we could but it wasn't life or death. Even if we won, there were other things in life.

"Today you've got to win or you're completely defeated. In some ways it's a pity but if Britain wants to maintain its place internationally we have to be professional."

Despite his Olympic success at Henley it was not until 1953 that Mr Bircher won at the Regatta, with Leander in the Grand Challenge Cup.

As a Steward, Richard Budgett is usually a Henley regular but his work with London 2012 is keeping him away until the weekend this year.

"I'm responsible for all the medical and anti-doping services at the Games," he explained. "The sheer logistics of the event are the biggest challenge. We have 200 medical volunteers and have to get them recruited, rostered and involved with the right sport."

In terms of his favourite Olympic memories, Mr Budgett says watching his former crew-mate Sir Steve Redgrave win his fifth gold medal was a close second to his own experience of standing on top of the medal rostrum in 1984, saying, "there was a special connection, with Steve back in the four after 16 years."

He described racing in the eight at Henley as being even more difficult than battling for that Los Angeles gold, saying: "The Olympics, we expected to win but the Grand was tough!"

Rowley Douglas and the Great Britain eight beat Australia in a nail-biting Olympic final in Sydney 12 years ago, reversing the result between the two in the Grand two months previously. That eight also lost to Germany at Henley the previous summer.

He blames the defeat on a failure to deal with the match-race format, and the extra psychological effects of being at Henley, for both crews.

"Both years were straight finals, which was an added pressure and you have to rise to it, which we didn't. Both crews that beat us, we beat a week later at Lucerne. The Germans beat us quite well and a week later we put nine or 10 seconds on them that was just psychological," said Mr Douglas.

Australia were given extra ammunition by a perceived slight from the previous World Cup event in Vienna, when the British won.

"They were supercharged, off-the-charts angry. They came here to smash the Poms in their backyard. We were on the Bucks station", recalls Mr Douglas of the stations where conditions can sometimes play a part. "If you have two crews who end up 0.8 sec apart in an Olympic final, you can't give one a handicap", he added.

Now 35, Mr Douglas made a comeback to competitive coxing two years ago, aiming to gain a place in the Olympic squad. He was passed over for selection, and had a subsequent appeal turned down, but is coxing the Molesey Boat Club / Oxford Brookes composite eight in the Ladies Plate.

Chris Ballieu, who with Mike Hart beat the Soviet double scull in Henley in 1973, three years before they won Olympic silver, has no doubt over the importance of the Regatta in the international scene.

"Henley provided a key race in my career when we beat the Olympic champions," he said. "If you race the best in the world side by side you learn things you wouldn't learn in six-lane, 2000m racing."

"It's interesting that the top teams from around the world still come to Henley. They would say it's highly important, both because of the standard of the racing and because it is unique!"