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A Brief History of GB Women’s Rowing at the Olympic Games

Fascinating facts about women’s rowing at the Olympic Games, and the GB women’s team in particular.

1976 (Montreal)

Women’s events added to the Olympic rowing programme for the first time. There were six events: eight, coxed quad (yes, coxed), coxed four, double scull, pair and single scull. Racing was over 1,000m.

The GB women’ team was a coxed four and a pair.

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Montreal 76 coxed four
1976 Montreal Olympics GB Women’ Coxed Four (Photo © Syd Burke.)

1980 (Moscow)

The programme for women’s rowing was unchanged but the racing was only five-lane, rather than the usual six (but still over 1,000m). This was largely to maintain the planned schedule of heats, repechages and finals despite entries being lower than expected due to a boycott by the USA and its allies, who were protesting the USSR’s recent invasion of Afghanistan.

GB sent four women’s boats: an eight, coxed four, double scull and single scull (Beryl Mitchell). The eight and Beryl both reached their finals where they finished fifth.

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Three women's eights in Moscow
Women’s eights race at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (Photo © Don Somner.)

1984 (Los Angeles)

The women’s rowing programme continued with its six events over 1,000m. The GB women’s team comprised five crews; Some of these were ‘late decisions’ as Britain was encouraged to support the Games with as many entries as possible after the Warsaw Pact countries decided to boycott the Games (apart from Romania, which accepted the International Olympic Committee’s and LA Organising Committee’s offers to pay a third each of the country’s travel and transportation costs, and won five of the six gold medals in women’s rowing, taking silver in the sixth event).

The eight was fifth in is six-boat straight final, and, arguably more impressively, Beryl Mitchell was sixth in the single sculls, from a field of 16.

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GB women in striped t-shirts
At LA84. From left: Kate Panter, Jean Genchi, Tessa Millar, Richard Ayling (coach), Kathy Talbot (cox), Ruth Howe, Kate McNicol. (Photo: Jean Genchi’s personal collection.)

1988 (Seoul)

Women’s rowing continued with its six events but by now the quad scull had become coxless, and the distanced had been extended to the full 2,000m raced by men..

The GB women’s team was three boats: a coxed four, a pair and a double scull.

The four’s monumental push through in the second half of their repechage to reach the final made them the first GB women’s crew to reach an Olympic final ‘when everyone was there’.

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GB women's four in casual kit
The coxed four in Seoul in 1988. (Photo: Sue Hastings’ personal collection.)

1992 (Barcelona)

Another coxing place was shed from the Olympic women’s programme for 1992; the four was now coxless too.

The GB women’s team was back to five boats: an eight, four, double, pair and single scull (Tish Reid). The double of Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill, and the pair of Jo Turvey and Miriam Batten both reached their finals where they finished fifth.

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9 women in white skirts and navy blazers
The eight and coach John Tomkins all dressed up to go to the 1992 Opening Ceremony. (Photo: Fiona Watson’s personal collection.)

1996 (Atlanta)

The four was removed from the women’s programme (after just one Games coxless) and replaced by the lightweight double scull.

These were the first games were crews had to pre-qualify, either by attaining a certain place at the World Championships the previous year (in which case it was the boat that was qualified by that nation, not the athletes) or at a Qualification Regatta held just a few weeks before the Games started (after which the athletes could not be change: this was to prevent nations using their top athletes to qualify the boat).

The GB women’s team was an eight, a pair and single sculler Guin Batten. Only Guin had qualified at the 1995 World Championships, and only she made the final, finishing fifth.

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Eights racing at Atlanta 1996
GB beating Germany in the B final at Atlanta. (Photo: Annamarie Phelps’ personal collection.)

2000 (Sydney)

While the programme was unchanged, 2000 was a transformational year for GB women’s rowing when the quad scull of Guin Batten, Katherine Grainger, Gillian Lindsay and Guin Batten won the first British women’s Olympic rowing medal, a silver.

With National Lottery funding having been brought in in 1997, the GB team finally able to train full time, with paid coaches. And it showed.

In total, there were five crews: an eight, the quad, a pair, a double and single sculler Alison Mowbray.

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GBR women's quad racing on Penrith Lakes
Perfect bladework from the quad in the closing stages of their final in 2000. (Photo: Guin Batten’s personal collection.)

2004 (Athens)

Still racing the same set of six events, the GB women’s results took another massive step up with three of the four crews winning medals. The quad of Alison Mowbray, Debbie Flood, Frances Houghton and Rebecca Romero, and the pair of Katherine Grainger and Cath Bishop both won silver, while the double of Sarah Winckless and Elise Laverick won bronze.

This made Katherine the first British woman to win two Olympic rowing medals.

Jane Hall and Tracey Langlands were the first GB lightweight women to qualify for the Lightweight Double Sculls event introduced in 1996.

2008 (Beijing)

Five GB crews competed at these Games, reaching four finals and winning two medals.

Annie Vernon, Debbie Flood, Frances Houghton and Katherine Grainger took silver in the quad (Debbie’s second Olympic medal and Katherine’s third), while Elise Laverick won her second Olympic bronze medal, in the double with Anna Watkins.

The eight and a young pair also reached their finals, and there was also a lightweight double.

2012 (London)

As in Beijing, GB women’s boats qualified for all of the six events apart from the single sculls. As host nation, GB could have had a wildcard single sculler, but chose not to make use of this quirky rule, and stuck to crews that had proven their right to be there.

At this the 10th Olympiad to include women’s rowing, GB women finally won that long-sought gold medal – in fact three of them. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning in the pair, Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger in the double sculls (Katherine’s fourth Olympic medal and Anna’s second), and Kat Copeland and Sophie Hosking in the lightweight double sculls all became Olympic champions.

The other two crews also reached their finals; the eight finished fifth and the quad sixth.

2016 (Rio de Janeiro)

The three openweight crews all medalled in Rio. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning became the first British women to defend their Olympic title, by winning gold again, while the eight and Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley both won silver.

This was Katherine’s fifth Olympic medal; she was subsequently made a Dame in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in recognition of this achievement. One member of the eight, Frances Hougton, was also at her fifth Olympic Games.

2020 (Tokyo)

Taking place in 2021, the women’s rowing programme saw its first change since 1996. In order to create parity between men’s and women’s events, the coxless four was reinstated (at the expense of the mens lightweight coxless four), bringing the total number of women’s events offered to seven.

GB has six entries (the openweight double did not qualify); notably, this is the first time that there are more women’s boats than men’s in the GB rowing team (there are four men’s crews).

Cart showing numbers of GB women's crews entered in Olypic rowing
GBR entries and events in the Olympic rowing regatta 1976-2020.

© Helena Salman-Smith, 2021.

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