Few would argue that the British rowing journalist Chris Dodd is our most eminent living rowing historian (pace Peter Mallory, of course). Over the years, Dodd has written extensively, if mostly UK-centric, about the people, places, and above all events that have marked rowing since the 1950s or so, with the effect of broadening awareness of rowing's history, understanding of how we got to the present moment, and not stinting on relaying (and in doing so, preserving) some outstanding moments in our sport.
Just in time for the ramp towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and as most observers in rowing are focusing their attentions on the athletes who will (or hope to) take to the water in Japan, one of Dodd's most recent books looks at a coach who has massively impacted the global rowing world; this is not an understatement, for we are talking about the GB's Jurgen Grobler.
Jurgen Grobler needs virtually no introduction, but to sketch it out briefly: Grobler was a highly successful rowing coach in his native East Germany until moving to the Leander Club in Henley on Thames in 1990, where he took charge of the GB Men's sweep squad, and has since led them to at least one Olympic Gold in each Olympiad since 1992. More to the point, Grobler has produced an Olympic Gold medal in each Olympiad since 1976, except 1984, which East Germany boycotted. Those 10 Olympic gold medals make Grobler the most successful rowing coach of all time.
Co-written with the former GB International Hugh Matheson, himself an Olympic medalist, More Power: The Story of Jurgen Grobler attempts to gain the measure of Grobler as a man and a coach. In doing so, the authors face two formidable tasks straight out of the gates; one is that Grobler himself politely but firmly refuses to cooperate with the authors, which means that the book is less a pure biography and more a detailed recounting of Grobler's methods and achievements, perhaps lacking the deeper insight that might have resulted out of working closely with Grobler himself.
The second major factor which looms over Grobler and his career are the allegations that Grobler was complicit in the state-sponsored doping which majorly impacted East German sports until the fall of the wall in 1990. The authors are remarkably candid in addressing the issue, even if Grobler is less so (for those who don't recall, an inquiry by both FISA and British Rowing in 1998 into Grobler's involvement doping in GDR rowing carried the possibility of Grobler both losing his job and facing potential criminal sanctions; in the end, Grobler was not charged by the German government, who was leading the investigation).
To be sure, the book neither excuses nor seeks to exonerate Grobler; the facts, and Grobler's statements on the matter are left to stand on their own merits. As Dodd relates it, "Grobler told Michael Calvin, of The Independent, in 2012, 'I know I cannot run away from my past.[...]Some things that were going on at that time might not have been correct, but I can look everybody in the eye and not feel guilty. I am not a doping coach. I am not a chemist.' That comment might be true superficially but, once deconstructed, it looks disingenuous."
An additional twist is poignant; Dodd's co-author Matheson was in the British Men's 8+ in Montreal, which lost to the East Germans after leading the race for almost 1800 meters. Although Grobler was not the coach of the East German M8+ in Montreal (he coached the M4x and M2+), Matheson was a direct victim, if you will, of a doping scheme Grobler was at the very least a participant in. (The story of Matheson's crew and British men's rowing in the 1970s is told in Dodd's excellent 2012 book, 'Pieces of Eight').
Despite these potential stumbling blocks, Dodd and Matheson manage to pull together an engaging book that spans Grobler's early career as a rower and a student, his first foray into international coaching at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Grobler coached the East German Men's Single to a Bronze medal, and his subsequent rise as one of the world's dominating rowing coaches.
Besides tracing Grobler's success through the '72, '76, '80 and '88 Games, the book offers an insightful look at the physiological and training methods practiced in East Germany (in addition to the above-mentioned discussion of GDR doping practices), and how these methods, as they came to western countries in the years after the end of the Cold War, influenced modern competitive rowing to this day.
The book also contains confirmation of a much-repeated story about Eastern bloc rowing: despite their successes, the rowers of East Germany and other Communist countries really didn't enjoy rowing that much. Dodd and Matheson relate the following anecdote from the 1978 Worlds at Lake Karapiro (New Zealand), where coaching launches could not accompany crews, and there were no bike paths for coaches. The British spare sculler is out in his single, when,
"he rounded a sharp bend into a steep-sided, sheltered cove to find the entire GDR team sitting in their boats and quietly enjoying a long rest--while their coaches imagined they were grinding out their obligatory daily paddling ration of 35km."
Not that the slacking mattered; the GDR took 11 medals in 16 events anyway.
Though it goes deep into the East German methods, it does not dwell there, and the lion's share of the book is devoted to Grobler's work at Leander and in the UK. Not least due to the closeness of the author's with the subjects and the subject matter, their recounting of the job that Grobler did in building up British men's rowing from 1990 on is superb and detailed, and it's hard not to get excited as they recount the (mainly) ups and a few downs of the next seven Olympiads.
Starting in 1990 with just one proven athlete and one promising newcomer, Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, Grobler slowly works to grow, mold, expand and push British men's rowing into the juggernaut it is today, most recently winning both the Men's Eight and Men's Four at the Rio Olympics.
A gold medal in seven consecutive Olympics is not accidental, and certainly Grobler benefitted handsomely from the professionalization and the heavy influx of funding into British sports generally and British rowing specifically beginning after the Atlanta Olympics, but as the book makes clear, Grobler did a tremendous amount with the advantages he was given, and Dodd and Matheson give ample voice to Grobler's past and current athletes who make it clear that their coach has driven and coached them to excel both as rowers and as people.
As with Dodd's other books, the writing is keen, well-balanced between telling anecdotes (always a key driver in Dodd's books), analysis, and a terrific sense of how the pieces fit together historically. Likewise, Dodd and Matheson strike a strong balance between technical details that rowers and coaches of any stripe will appreciate, with enough storytelling chops to draw in a more general reader.
Despite the book being written from the outside rather than directly at Grobler's elbow, the accomplishments and insights of Grobler and his rowers over the years are amply shown, and the end result is a very readable journey through over 50 years of rowing at the highest level. And with the 2020 Olympics less than 200 days away, anyone reading this book would not have many reasonable doubts that Grobler's crews can achieve the man's 11th Olympic Gold medal in Tokyo.
"More Power: The Story of Jurgen Grobler"