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Sir Steve Redgrave has hit out at British Rowing after their woeful performance in Tokyo, claiming they have paid the price for allowing former head coach Jürgen Grobler to leave and allowing their approach "go a bit soft".
A return of just two medals – a silver in the men's quadruple sculls and bronze in the men's eight – represented Britain's worst Games in 45 years and has already sparked bitter recriminations.
Central to that is the departure of Grobler, who had overseen at least one gold medal at every Olympic regatta since 1976, and Paul Thompson, who had been head coach to the British women.
After the British men’s eight took bronze on Friday morning, bowman Josh Bugajski told reporters that Grobler used to “destroy” athletes that he took a disliking to. There have been suggestions the German's exit was linked to a desire to change the culture and move to a more sensitive environment.
But five-time Olympic champion Redgrave has questioned the new approach.
“It may be that the approach has gone a bit soft," he told Telegraph Sport. "If we want a soft approach, we will have to expect softer results.
“Jürgen was asked to leave,” Redgrave added. “As well as Paul. If you ask two of the best coaches the world has ever seen in any sport to leave, both within two years of this Olympics, then you deserve what you get.
“Not everyone can carry on for ever. Athletes have that, coaches have that, and systems have that. But you have got to move forwards. With the systems that we have put back in of selection panels and so forth, we’ve moved back to the ’70s and ‘80s, and we have to accept ‘70s and ‘80s results.”
Redgrave is no fan of selection panels, which have replaced Grobler’s own personal judgement as the method for assembling crews.
Selection is a particularly contentious issue in rowing, as the cold, hard numbers of the ergometer have to be combined with “boat-moving” skills on the water and the peculiar alchemy that makes up a successful team.
When it came to picking crews, Grobler’s supporters feel that he had a magic touch. And this is one reason why many of the sport's big names are still so angry about Grobler’s departure last year. In a response to Bugajski’s comments on Friday morning, the three-time Olympic gold medallist Andrew Triggs Hodge tweeted “I'm so sad to read your interview comments about Jürgen.”
I'm so sad to read your interview comments about Jürgen. I'm sorry you feel let down by another coach and system, but it's time to accept your own failings and limitations and not blame others - and not in this way. You are just destroying yourself and those around you. https://t.co/AIYB3Q20wT
— Andrew T Hodge (@andrewthodge) July 30, 2021
Grobler’s departure, in August last year, came as the result of what was effectively an ultimatum from British Rowing: stay on for the Paris Olympics in 2024 or we will have to find a new coach straight away. At 74, Grobler was not prepared to commit to another term.
According to Redgrave, “The athletes aren’t to blame. I think we’ve got some of the best athletes in the world, and they’ve shown that year after year. We have tremendous funding from the Lottery. We certainly have enough finance. So where does that leave us? It’s got to be the people in charge.”
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In an interview with the BBC, British Olympic Association chief executive Andy Anson said “We shouldn’t worry about it [rowing’s underwhelming return of one silver medal and one bronze]. They’re trying to change the culture of that sport. It’s quite a hardcore culture and [they are] trying to transition to something where the athletes are getting more support."
But Redgrave is concerned about rowing’s funding levels, which had already been reduced from £24.7 million for the Tokyo cycle to £22.2 million for Paris, even before these results had been logged. “I think everyone’s expecting a big cut,” he said.
British Rowing will not return to Grobler-like approach
By Ben Rumsby
British Rowing will not reintroduce an authoritarian approach to producing Olympic champions despite a woeful Tokyo Games – because the current generation of athletes will not put up with it.
Andy Parkinson, the governing body’s chief executive, said there would be no return to the kind of coaching under Grobler that coincided with Britain becoming the sport’s most successful nation.
The country’s tally of one silver and one bronze at the postponed Olympics – their worst return for 45 years – has sparked a bitter row among current and former rowers over a change of approach by British Rowing since the 2016 Games and the departure of Grobler less than a year before Tokyo 2020.
Redgrave, who Grobler coached to three of his five Olympic titles, attacked the governing body for allowing its approach to “go a bit soft”, but men’s eight bronze medallist Josh Bugajski accused the German of “destroying the soul” of some in the squad.
In his first interview since the regatta ended, Parkinson told Telegraph Sport there was a place for authoritarian coaching for those who thrived on it but not for those who did not in a sport engulfed by accusations of bullying in recent years.
He said: “It’s not binary. It’s not an either-or. What we’re trying to do is attend to the individual within the programme, whether that’s coaching staff or athletes.
“The other thing to recognise, which is what we’ve been focusing on, is we’ve got a different generation coming through our programme and they’ve got different demands. You can see that in society at the moment.
“So, we have two approaches: we either say, ‘Right, this is the way we’re doing it and if you want to come in, you have to change’; or, we can have an adaptable programme that says, ‘Do you know what? We want to try to enable as many people to have Olympic success as possible and we’re going to adapt the way in which we work so that we can facilitate that’.
“We’ve gone with the latter and that’s absolutely where we should be.”
Parkinson said it was futile to speculate on whether Britain would have won more medals in Tokyo had men’s coach Grobler stayed on but did point to the additional departures of women’s chief coach Paul Thompson and performance director Sir David Tanner since the Rio Games.
He also gave his full backing to Tanner’s successor, Brendan Purcell, who joined British Rowing from British Triathlon three years ago but has yet to deliver a gold medal on the global stage.
“He’s one of the best in the business. I’ve really enjoyed working with him. He’s got a fantastic approach with the athletes and the coaching staff. Difficult for him to come in mid-cycle. That’s always a challenge.
“Everyone’s had to go through this but we all know the last 18 months has been pretty tough on our athletes and pretty tough on our coaching staff.”
Parkinson, who did not travel to Tokyo but got up in the early hours to watch the regatta, said it had been “heart-breaking” to watch so many of his athletes miss out on medals.
He admitted results would lead to some “pretty tough conversations” but said it was “not a time to panic” and that six fourth places demonstrated the squad were “on the right track”.
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Rowing received more taxpayer and National Lottery money than any other sport in the build-up to the Games – almost £25 million – and the same was the case when the Paris 2024 figures were announced in December.
Asked whether he feared for the £22m-plus award, Parkinson said that was a decision for UK Sport. He added: “The funding award we got for Paris was on future medal potential. I think we’ve demonstrated here that we’re in the medal zone. We’re clearly going to have to have some conversations with them and they’re keen to give us some space so that we can sit down, review, have those hard conversations. And then we’ll have a similarly difficult conversation, I would imagine, with UK Sport.
“But I’m not hearing anything that suggests they’re going to panic in their own funding award and I think that’s just a conversation for us all to have once we’ve got all the information to hand and we can have an informed conversation.”
Parkinson said it was “critical” for Britain to win at a world championships in the build-up to the next Games.
He added: “We need to get a gold-medal boat. I think that’s key.”