Pimms, blazers and boats

2-5 July 2009

Every year, people like to have something they can look forward to. For some, it is Christmas. For others it is their well earned summer break. For me, travelling to Henley Royal Regatta has always filled me with excitement. The fascination started when I was a student competing for Trinity in the Temple Challenge Cup for eight man boats and the Britannia for coxed fours. It has continued into my early thirties where I am able to use the event as a chance to catch up with friends from rowing I haven’t seen in a long time.

There are a lot of sporting events that manage to transcend the sports themselves and become cultural events. The Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix is a good example. While the drivers are completely focused on the job before them, millionaires host lavish parties at trackside for their clients. While the sport is undoubtedly interesting, people love to be associated with unique events. For the uninitiated, Henley Royal Regatta is a bit like this. Picnics, champagne and rowing blazers are everywhere. Thousands of people travel from all over the world to attend the event. Some position themselves in the Steward’s Enclosure where dresses must be below the knee for ladies and men must wear blazers and ties. Others are in corporate entertainment enclosures and as you make your way down the bank the entertainment ranges from private clubs and houses to bars and even nightclubs for all.

The atmosphere at the event is fantastic. But people can forget the titanic battles that are happening on the water. On Friday the 3rd of July, I ran down the bank with my former Commonwealth Games partner Brendan Smyth at 8.30 am and we paused at the start of one of the hundreds of races that happen throughout the five day event. The tension is intense. The men in the boat sit bolt upright waiting for the umpire’s launch to come to a stop behind them and ask them to get ready. As Brendan and I stood there we were both transported back to our own days on the river. Fear grabs you and your heart rate shoots up. You try to banish the negative thoughts – Can we do this? Can we beat these guys? Can I even row anymore? As Sir Matthew Pinsent said about the start of the Olympic Final in Sydney, if you could walk away and nobody would notice you would go right there and then. But the umpire rapidly steps into your thoughts as he stands up in the launch behind you and says “Attention….Go!”

In Henley, dreams are made and crushed within earshot of the riverbank party. The event places two boats against each other and there is no hiding place. Standing there on the bank reminded me how much sport has to offer us in our lives. Rowing is highly competitive and it is a brutal reminder that life is full of winners and losers. In rowing as in life there is nowhere to hide if we don’t put the necessary effort into what we’re doing. Sometimes, you work hard all year and a crew is better than you. You can’t affect the result, but you can always affect your own performance. And at the end of the day, that’s what we all have to live with.

In so many walks of life, competitiveness is being phased out. There are efforts to make everyone a winner. Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. The famous American broadcaster Howard Cosell said that sport was human life in a microcosm. In Henley I believe Cosell’s words came true. Rowing like any sport, teaches us how to deal with winning and cope with losing. Often the end result doesn’t matter. Trophies and pennants often end up collecting dust in attics. The thing that will always stay with you is the memory of what you did and didn’t do. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose but the important point is to make sure you are a competitor in the race whatever your event is…

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