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Tokyo 2020 Olympic reflections

Tokyo 2020 starts on 23 July – we asked five rowing experts for their thoughts on the GB Rowing Team’s prospects

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will finally get under way when the rowing starts on Friday 23 July and goes through to Friday 30 July – a rare chance to see the world’s top rowers in competition on the global stage.

We asked sports journalists Martin Cross and Martin Gough, together with Katie Smith from BBC Sport and Rachel Quarrell, rowing correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, for their thoughts on the racing to come. Rose Crawford, who was the winner in our 2020 writing competition for juniors, also offers her insights on the GB Rowing Team and Tokyo Olympic Games.

THE OLYMPIC CREWS LINE UP AT THEIR TRAINING CENTRE IN CAVERSHAM

1 – Which crews have the best chance of returning with medals – and what do you think the medal tally will be?

Katie: I’m feeling optimistic heading into Tokyo, and I think what will be quite interesting is seeing where some overseas crews are at because we’ve not seen much of them racing internationally over the past year due to the pandemic. Will they be lacking intense racing competition compared to the GB crews?

I think GB’s best gold medal chances will be in the men’s eight, the men’s four and the women’s lightweight double. Plus, I wouldn’t rule out the women’s pair in a field that is so untested against one another in the past year or so.

Silver and bronze medals could come in the men’s doubles, men’s quad potentially and Vicky Thornley in the women’s single scull.

Similarly, to Rio, I predict five medals overall, three golds, plus a silver and bronze for Great Britain.

Martin Cross: The men’s four have a super chance of winning their event to add to a long line of British success stretching back to 2000. The men’s eight is too close to call, but the British will go in as favourites to head the Germans in the final. Whether anyone else gets ahead of them we’ll have to wait and see. The women’s lightweight double have a fabulous chance to pick up a gold medal, but this will be another very close contest. Finally, the women’s pair is good enough to be in the medal positions in what is a stellar field.

“The delay of the Olympics has really helped the GB Rowing Team”

Rachel: The men’s four and eight, women’s pair and four, and light women’s double have the best chances of medals, and, on the right day, the women’s single and men’s double and quad also have the speed and temperament.  

For the overall tally, best to stick with David Tanner’s (former British Rowing High Performance Director) old maxim that you’re unlikely to convert all the chances, so I’ll settle for a cautious three to six medals with no prediction yet of which colours.

Rose: The delay of the Olympics has really helped the GB Rowing Team. Nine medals, including three golds, at the 2021 European Rowing Championships was an excellent return for a team that only managed three bronzes in Olympic events at the 2019 World Championships. The men’s four, men’s eight, women’s quad and lightweight women’s double are definitely in contention for victory. The men’s double, men’s quad, women’s four, women’s single and women’s pair may also medal. I predict the overall medal tally to be three golds, one silver and one bronze.

Martin Gough: In the best-case scenario, Great Britain could win seven medals – which would be an improvement of two on their table-topping performance in Rio – but I think it’s more likely to be four or five. Looking on from outside the squad, I’d say the men’s eight has the best chance of gold. I don’t think there will be a GB crew in Tokyo that doesn’t expect to reach the A-final at least.

“The rise of the Irish women’s four has been remarkable”

2 – Who are the main threats to the GB crews across the field?

Martin Gough: In a normal Olympiad there would be bags of data from other crews to compare against, helping to form the all-important Predicted Gold Medal Times, which are re-calibrated each year. This time, though, there are lots of crews we haven’t seen in public for 18 months, including medal contenders from Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Rose: New Zealand topped the medal table at the 2019 World Championships, largely thanks to their women’s squad winning four golds and a silver. Their pair of Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast will be the biggest threat to Helen Glover’s comeback. The Australians and Germans will undoubtedly be strong again and the Chinese will be looking for their first gold since 2008 under new Performance Director, Sir Steve Redgrave.

Rachel: The biggest threat is unknown: we have no clue as to many crews’ form after 16 months of restricted travel. The top crews from Australia and New Zealand are likely to be big players, particularly New Zealand’s potentially record-breaking women’s pair, but the US has form with creating competitive sweep crews out of thin air. Finally, seven Russian crews qualified last-minute this year, some of whom are very strong.  

Martin Cross: In the men’s four the main opposition is likely to come from the Aussies, who have not raced internationally this season. It’s their top boat and they will be out to prove that their world titles in 2017 and 2018 were no flashes in the pan. In the men’s eight you’ve got to put the Germans up there as the key threat to Britain. But the Kiwi eight with Hamish Bond on board looked great, beating Romania in the qualifying regatta. The women’s lightweight double will have to get past the new holders of the world’s best time – the Netherlands – while the women’s pair need to impose themselves against four crews who haven’t raced in the world cup season: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA.

3 – What crews are the dark horses likely to cause an upset?

Katie: I’m very intrigued by what the Chinese crews might do in Tokyo, in particular I was impressed by their women’s eight at the final Olympic qualifier who were really moving the boat well. China haven’t won an Olympic gold in any boat since 2008. Of course, the Chinese women’s quad has been miles ahead in recent races and not forgetting the men’s double too who are in with a shot at gold. I wonder if it has anything to do with a certain Steve Redgrave?!

Also, a quick mention to the Irish women’s four who booked their spot in Tokyo with a win at the final qualifying regatta. I think they could be podium contenders from the way they row and the belief in their boat.

Martin Cross: The GB men’s quad have been steadily improving all season and will aim to be on the podium. Olaf Tufte, going for his seventh Olympic Games in the Norwegian quad, will look to grab a final slot.

Rachel: It depends what you mean by dark horse. Polly Swann and Helen Glover in the women’s pair are unproven with great 2013 results, but only one narrow victory in 2021. They are up against New Zealand’s peerless Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast so, on paper, gold looks unlikely, but they could pull a surprise. In the women’s singles, Russia’s Hanna Prakatsen and New Zealand’s Emma Twigg have proven dangerous speed and could shock the European regulars in the women’s single out of both gold and silver.  

“I’ll be trying to drown out the other press yelling in the stand, since there are no spectators”

Rose: The rise of the Irish women’s four has been remarkable. At the 2019 World Rowing Championships, they only managed tenth place, but they stormed through the Brits to take second at the 2021 European Rowing Championships, missing out on gold by only 0.45 seconds. The Australians are undoubtedly favourites for this event and have strengthened their victorious crew from 2019 by adding their pair, but the Irish could cause an upset.

4 – Which races are you looking forward most to watching, and why?

Katie: I think the women’s eight could be fascinating. The USA only finished third at the world championships in 2019, so they’ll be fuelled by that and will be keen to keep their Olympic dynasty going. However, I don’t think New Zealand and Australia will have backed off the pace with such intense training opportunities in the pandemic – and then throw the Chinese and Dutch in there too – I’m predicting a tight finish.

Then from a British perspective, then men’s four should be another epic battle against the Aussies (in their top boat), one which I expect the Brits to triumph in again.

Rachel: I cannot wait for the men’s eights final, which even if the Brits and Germans leave the rest behind, it will be an epic. I’ll be trying to drown out the other press yelling in the stand, since there are no spectators. In the men’s fours Australia’s excellent quartet will be trying to spoil the European party. Plus, the men’s and women’s singles finals.

“I’m genuinely thrilled to see Helen Glover back in a GB vest looking so relaxed”

Rose: Arguably, the most exciting race of the 2021 European Championships was the men’s double sculls. All six crews were pretty much level with 500m to go and I’m looking forward to more of the same in Tokyo.

Martin Gough: The men’s eight is always a highlight, more so as Great Britain look to defend their Olympic title. Coach Steve Trapmore won his own Olympic gold in their eight 21 years ago, while Moe Sbihi is aiming for a third medal at successive Games.

Of their rivals, the back-and-forth between GB and Germany’s ‘Deutschland Achter’ has been going for more than a decade now. The Netherlands are defending world champions – we haven’t seen the Aussies or Americans this year and New Zealand (including double Olympic champ Hamish Bond of the Kiwi Pair fame) came through the qualifying regatta.

5 – Moving to non-GB crews, which are the standout crews to watch because of their sheer class?

Martin Gough: Martin and Valent Sinkovic of Croatia may not be as close to technical perfection in the pair as they were in the double scull, where they won gold in Rio, but they have been good enough to win the last two world titles and I’m looking forward to see the final chapter in their conversion from scull to sweep.

For technical mastery, I always keep an eye out for the Dutch women’s lightweight double, where reigning Olympic champion Ilse Paulis has formed a new partnership Marieke Keijser, bringing a new world best time at the World Cup in Sabaudia last month.

Rachel: Only one this year that I’d watch doing even the most boring drill: the Dutch men’s quad. They have a rippling silky smoothness which makes you want to be in the boat with them.  

Martin Cross: Most coaches say – and I’m of the same opinion – that they love to watch the German men’s eight for their classy technique and beautiful paddling.

6 – Is there anything else that you would like to add about the Tokyo Olympics?

Katie: I’m genuinely thrilled to see Helen Glover back in a GB vest looking so relaxed, and imparting such a positive message about motherhood, returning to sport with children and what you can still achieve. However, it’s bitter-sweet that we’ll get to see such high-class rowing on show in Japan, but there will be no fans there in person. For a sport built on camaraderie and community I really hope it’ll be back to ‘normal’ soon. 

Rose: It is sad that there will be no spectators to support the athletes.

On another note, Tokyo will be an incredible seventh Olympic Games for Olaf Tufte. He will be racing in the Norwegian quad that came second at the most recent World Rowing Cup in Sabaudia – a drastic improvement from the European Championships, where they could only manage 12th. This is a crew that is certainly on the rise and one to look out for.

Martin Gough: Although no Brit made it into the draw for the men’s single sculls, the entry of 32 includes at least three scullers who have spent time based in the UK, so keep an eye out for them in the heats. Peter Purcell-Gilpin of Zimbabwe qualified for Tokyo while training at Molesey BC, Monaco’s Quentin Antognelli is based at Oxford Brookes and Dara Alizadeh of Bermuda is a former Boat Race winning president of Cambridge University and is coached in Tokyo by CUBC’s Rob Baker.

Rachel: It will be weird with no spectators or family, but at least it’s happening after five years of arduous training. The hugs will be there when the athletes return to Heathrow.  

Martin Cross: I hope the rowing gets away with it. But the spectre of crew withdrawals because of an individual’s positive COVID test looms over the competition. 

Photo: Adam Heayberd

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