The 1980 Olympic regatta took place from 20-27 July 1980 at the purpose-built Krylatskoye course in Moscow.
The women’s races, still over 1,000m as they had been since women started racing internationally in 1951, attracted 43 entries from 12 countries, including Mexico for the first time. As a result of the boycott of the Games by many Western countries, of which much more later, this was the lowest number of both crews and countries participating since women had first been included in the World Championship and Olympic programmes in 1974.
Selection Policy and coaching
As in 1979, the Women’s Selection Board comprised Don Somner (Chair), and former internationals Liz Lorrimer and Chris Aistrop, but they were now supported by Bob Pinsent who took the role of Secretary.
In an article in ARA Club News, Don Somner explained, “The over-riding aim for the year is to produce crews of sufficient standard to reach the finals at the Olympic Games in as many classes as possible. However, there is also a secondary aim to promote women’s international rowing and give as many girls as possible the opportunity to race internationally so as to ensure the continuity of international crews and the national squad with the longer term aim of medals in the 1984 Olympics.”
For the second year, Dan Topolski (who was also the Oxford University men’s Boat Race coach at the time) was Women’s Squad Co-Ordinator and Coach, and was assisted by Chris George.
The scene was set.
Getting under way
Dan set out the initial training plan in a letter to squad members in mid-October:
Training is now under way for the preparatory work leading to the Moscow Olympics. London and southeast women… should join the land training sessions at Paddington Girls School* on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5.45pm with individual land training work (running) on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Water work has begun at Hammersmith on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9am.
* Paddington School had been used for land training for some years, courtesy of squad member Lin Clark who worked there.
First Nottingham assessment (3-4 November)
According to Rowing magazine: “72 oarswomen, scullers and coxes performed over the weekend, making this the largest assessment weekend so far recorded.” Whether this was down to the general growth in women’s rowing, or the Olympic effect, or both, is not clear, but it was certainly a good start.
15 of the 16 of the rowers from the 1979 team were back, as well as former GB juniors Jo Toch and Jane Cross and other triallists from the previous year including Bernadette Casey, Jane Sturdy, and Julia Corbin who all had experience of racing at early season international regattas.
Liz Paton, who had been a member of the 1979 eight, recalls, “There were actually quite a few people who appeared, including several from Oxford and Cambridge who had obviously rowed in their university crews, and the juniors were coming up through the ranks, so there was quite a big changeover.”
Who trained where?
Squad membership was open to anyone, and the main sweep group was based at Hammersmith. However, as for the three previous seasons, there was a double based at Kingston RC, and there were also two single scullers who also did their water work separately from the rest of the squad. In addition, “A secondary women’s squad was started at Putney, so that future potential will not be wasted. This is under the watchful eye of Alec Hodges, Bob Pinsent and Noel Casey,” according to Rowing magazine.
The successful doubles partnership between Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart had come to come to an end after three seasons, so Astrid invited Sue Handscomb to join her. Sue had been in the GB eight in 1975 and 1979, and in the quad in 1977. She says, “I still regarded myself as a rower not a sculler, but they tried me out and decided it was going to work.”
In 1977 and 1978 Astrid’s double had been coached by Don Somner, although he’d stopped coaching in 1979 to spend more time with his family, and also to avoid a conflict of interest because he’d become Chair of Selectors.
“Astrid approached me in he autumn of 1979 and said she was getting together with Sue and would I coach them?,” Don remembers. “And I replied, ‘Well it’s a bit tricky because I’m Chair of the Selectors,’ but I agreed I would start off coaching them for a bit and actually quite enjoyed coaching them because it was refreshingly different working with a new crew. So I then had to tell the ARA that I was going to step down as a Selector because I was coaching again and they very kindly said, ‘No, no, we’ve got a system going that’s working well, carry on as a Selector but when your crew comes up to the selection you’re to leave the room and the other two will decide.’ Which was a nonsense because the other Selectors would have done what I wanted them to do. But in fact it never came to an argument because they were quick enough to be selected.”
Astrid and Sue really enjoyed training together. “I loved that there were just two of us,” Sue says. “We’d know if one of us was going to be late for training, whereas when you row in an eight, it doesn’t matter how late you turned up, someone was always behind you, which used to annoy me!”
The single scullers
Beryl Mitchell had been the GB single sculler in 1979 when she’d come 13th at the World Championships. She continued to single scull in the 1980 season, and quite often joined the GB men’s sculling squad, coached by Mike Spracklen, in Marlow. At Mike Spracklen’s suggestion, former GB sculler Mark Hayter then started coaching her on the water part way through the year. Mark had been in the GB quad at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 but after that had had knee surgery and had never quite got back into the crew, although he’d continued trying, but eventually recognised he wasn’t going to be selected for 1980.
“Because I was still pretty fit then, I just coached Beryl from my sculling boat,” he explains. “A lot of the time, we’d do a piece of work and I’d start off two or three lengths ahead of her because I wanted to talk to her or shout at her or say something and then I’d let her go past me because I’d run out of breath early because of the talking. But that was quite a handy way of coaching. It was cheap. And cheap was quite important!”
He adds, “Sometimes she’d go to training sessions with the rest of the women’s squad but it was basically me and her and actually that probably suited her.” They generally trained in Henley or on the multi-lane lake at Thorpe Park. “I think one thing that Beryl always needed to get the best out of her was a competitive angle, so my being alongside in a sculling boat was actually beneficial for her, especially knowing that we were not direct competitors for anything.”
However, Beryl was to face very stiff direct competition for the right to be the GB single that year from Pauline Hart.
Pauline had been in the GB squad since it started in 1974, and had sculled in double for the three previous seasons with Astrid Ayling. Now she too decided to go it alone, coached by Carl Douglas. “But I thought I had a reasonable chance of beating Beryl, although it was probably arrogant of me to assume that I could because because obviously she was pretty handy in the single,” she remembers.
The ensuing battle between them for selection would continue until just a week before Lucerne regatta in June.
Medical matters and psychology
As it was an Olympic year, the British Olympic Association (BOA) arranged for the women’s squad to go for medical screening at a BUPA Centre in December 1979.
The team members also had individual sessions with a psychologist, which was not something any of them had experienced before. The consensus is that while this was a good idea in principle, it didn’t really help at all in practice, particularly because they only saw the specialist once.
Jo Toch says, “The psychologist we were sent to see, a Dr Maurice Jaffe [the first psychologist on the BOA’s medical advisory committee], turned out to be a sex psychologist so that was probably completely inappropriate! All I remember is that he did a test with our thumb to see if we were anxious or not, or something like that, and then I said I wanted to go to university in Oxford and he told me that I wanted to go there because there were more men there than women, and that had just never occurred to me. I just thought the whole thing was a bit odd because every question seemed to be geared along those lines.”
Rosie Clugston remembers another element of Dan’s energetic quest to optimise every aspect of what the women’ squad was doing that didn’t really work. “He’d done a bit of research and found out that one of the versions of the pill had got higher levels of one of the hormones in it and he wanted us all to take that one because he’d decided it would help our performances. It was completely legal but none of us took it.”
More training and assessment
The ARA had a custom-built sweep rowing machine and squad members got about 10 minutes a week on it each.
21 members of the squad were tested at the end of November, with Beverley Jones producing the highest average power per minute, Lin Clark second and Gill Webb third. On 22 January, Liz Paton came out on top with Nicola Boyes second and Jane Sturdy third, and in another test after that, Nicola had the greatest total work score, with Pauline Janson second and Gill Webb third.
Towards the end of the winter when the the squad went to Banyoles on training camp, they were “introduced to proper ergos,” as Liz Paton puts it. “I remember sitting on these things and they were just an extraordinary new world. They were terrifying and they seemed designed to make people crack. You’d be going along beside someone on the ergo and you’d thinking, ‘I can’t keep up,’ and then they’d suddenly fail, so you thought, ‘Oh, I can keep up and I can beat them because I’m not going to fail.'”
Seat racing (2-3 February 1980)
One thing that almost everyone who was part of the Dan Topolski coaching era talks about is the amount of seat racing that they did, often at Thorpe Park. At just one of these sessions, the results were:
- Gill Hodges beat Pauline Janson by 0.5 lengths.
- Pauline Janson beat Gill Webb by 1 length.
- Bev Jones beat Jane Sturdy by 1.75 lengths.
- Jane Sturdy beat Julia Corbin by 2.5 lengths.
- Penny Sweet beat Jane Curry by 2.2 lengths and Julia Corbin by 1.5 lengths (marked ‘inconsistent’).
- Julia Corbin beat Jane Curry by 2.7 lengths.
- Nicola Boyes beat Lin Clark by 1.5 lengths.
- Lin Clark beat Steph Price by 1.7 lengths.
- Liz Paton beat Steph Price by 1.5 lengths.
- Jo Toch beat Julia Corbin by 1.5 lengths.
- Rosie Clugston beat Lin Clark by 0.7 lengths (inconsistent).
- Steph Price beat Bridget Buckley by 1.7 lengths (inconsistent).
- Bridget Buckley beat Janet Unwin by 2 lengths.
Although Rosie only appears on bowside here, she eventually got into the eight on both sides. “I think he did it to get a ranking,” she says, but it proved convenient later on when two of the quad became seriously ill [more on this next – Ed.] and were taken out of from consideration for the eight, “He’d put me onto bowside at first and then when they went out he moved me back across to strokeside.”
Banyoles training camp (9-23 February 1980)
This should have been a great opportunity to get in some solid training and seat racing on good water in warm conditions to break up the drudgery of winter training in the British winter. But it turned into a disaster – both personal and for the squad – because of badly cooked food [there are different memories of exactly what it was with both prawns in a paella and burgers being blamed – Ed.].
Jane Sturdy remembers, “Some people were very sick the evening of the meal, which with hindsight was probably a good thing. I wasn’t sick and neither was Pauline Janson.” Gill Webb recalls this very clearly too. “Everyone was really ill in the night and I was sharing a room with Nicola Boyes who was a doctor, and everyone was knocking on our door asking for advice. Lin and I hadn’t eaten it because it looked dodgy to us and we’d learned about that sort of thing from being away with the squad in previous years, so we were OK but almost everyone else was really sick, including Nicola. I just told everyone, ‘The Doctor’s ill, and she says go to bed, drink plenty of fluids and don’t eat anything,’ so I was kind of squad doctor for the day!”
Reading Head (8 March 1980)
Two squad eights raced at Reading Head:
Women’s Rowing Committee Head of the River Race for Eights (8 March 1980)
Dan’s decision to race his main sweep squad at Reading, rather than at what is now known as the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race, was probably made because he felt Reading promised closer tussles with similar speed (men’s) crews. The Women’s Head was a much smaller event then – in fact, the entry of 25 crews it attracted that year was the largest there had ever been – and was only over short course.
However, a composite crew, made up of some of those who were more doing their own thing, former internationals, and development athletes, did race at the Women’s Head and won by over 20 seconds. The crew was: Beryl Mitchell, Clare Bayles, Yvonne Earl, Debbie Brennan, Sally Bloomfield, Bernadette Casey, Caroline Casey, Alexa Forbes and cox Nicky Mason.
Kingston Head (15 March 1980) and a major blow for the sweep squad
At least one squad eight raced here. Jane Sturdy remembers the occasion all too well as it was the last time she rowed with the squad. “I felt very unwell when I got up although I still raced because Chris George, who was coaching us, thought that I was merely nervous rather than ill.”
In fact, Jane had gone down with hepatitis A, which she’d contracted from the undercooked food in Banyoles, as had Pauline Janson. Although getting it seems not to be guaranteed if you eat undercooked, infected shellfish, it seems likely that Jane is right that they would have been better off throwing up after eating it as the others did.
Liz Paton remembers seeing Jane in the boathouse a couple of days later, and says, “I’d just never seen anybody so yellow in my life.”
Pauline was off training for a while, but managed to come back. Jane was more seriously affected and although she did row again at club level, the international rowing career that she looked set to enjoy ended before it started.
Head of the River Race (22 March 1980)
The women’s squad were keen to enter the (men’s) HORR because they wanted to race crews their speed, but not surprisingly they weren’t allowed to.
Someone must have then decided to go to the press as the News of the World published a sensationalist story about it all on 9 March. “Britain’s top women are in a protest at being barred from a world-famous race,” it screamed, “And they are even angrier because the committee which banned them is headed by… a woman. The 19 girls in the Olympic Rowing Squad have been told they cannot enter the gruelling Head of the River Race… the Secretary of the Race Committee, Pauline Churcher, says the event is for men only.”
The piece continued, “Dan Topolski, 34, the women’s coach, branded the organisers as ‘old-fashioned and stodgy’. He said, ‘Just about every other race of this kind now has a section in which women can compete.'” This, of course, conveniently ignores the existence of the women’s-only WRC Head and the fact that by this time the HORR was actually so over-subscribed that the veteran category had just been removed from it.
The race was in the afternoon that year so the GB women’s squad were able to get out training on the Tideway as usual in the morning. Afterwards they were hanging around at Civil Service Ladies RC, watching men’s crews get ready to race and noticed that there was a number that hadn’t been collected from the batch that had been delivered to next door Cygnet RC for visiting crews. The crew it belonged to was clearly not going to turn up. On the spur of the moment, nine of the women decided to take it and race, using a Civil Service Ladies boat and blades.
Rosie Clugston was one of them and remembers it well:
It was a cold day so we were able to wear lots of kit and hats to disguise ourselves without looking out of place. We really felt we’d be found out on the way to the start but none of the officials rumbled us. We did the race and we got a provisional time but once the organisers realised it was us we got disqualified.
Some of our club members and the boatman were horrified and felt there would be a backlash against the club, but nothing more came of it.
Their misdemeanour paled into insignificance in, though, compared with another major issue which came to a head [no pun intended – Ed.] at that time and could have meant the end to the whole of British rowing’s Olympic campaign.
Olympic preparations throughout the world were suddenly disrupted on Christmas eve 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan. This was the start of a war which would drag on for ten years and has been described as a cold war by proxy, with rebel factions backed by the US fighting the puppet communist government installed by the Russians in what was effectively an external coup in a country that was in a state of chaos.
The US president Jimmy Carter soon announced that the whole US team would be withdrawn from the Moscow Games unless the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. They didn’t, of course, and a series of legal challenges by American athletes ensued that failed to overturn the boycott.
Lesser known fact: The 1976 Olympic Games was also boycotted by a large number of sub-Saharan African nations in protest at NZ being allowed to compete despite having played a rugby match in South Africa which had had its membership of the Olympic movement revoked because if its apartheid regime.
In the UK, the newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher strongly supported a boycott too, but didn’t have the same legal jurisdiction over sport that the US President had, and couldn’t enforce one. Nevertheless, the whole squad got letters from her telling them they shouldn’t go.
The Parliamentary debate
On Monday, 17 March, there was a lengthy debate in Parliament on the issue. Many GB athletes from all sports went to listen to it live.
Penny Sweet remembers, “One evening, we had a shorter outing than usual, and all went to Westminster and lobbied our MPs. We said for one thing the Olympics is about peace, about understanding between people, it’s not about dividing people and boycotting. Secondly, you’re asking us to boycott, to put down the drain four years of training and we haven’t seen a single trade boycott or any other boycott of any sort, so that’s just not on. So we said we were going to go.”
Don Somner agreed wholeheartedly with her first point in particular. “If somebody had said to me that we’re going to really hit the USSR for this, we’re not going to buy their products and we’re going to refuse to trade with them, there might have been more sense behind it. But the ONLY thing they did was say we shouldn’t go to the Olympics. And that was brought home when we actually went there because all the facilities and all the stuff you could buy had been made in European countries that did actually boycott it but they’d sent millions of pounds worth of goods there.”
Sue Handscomb was deeply disappointed at how some MPs behaved during the debate. “It was the first time I’d been in the House of Commons and I was just amazed looking down at the MPs at what they were up to. There were people sitting there knitting, sitting there cutting things out, doing absolutely anything and everything other than paying attention to what was going on, it seemed and we were behaving impeccably as we’d been given a list of what we could and couldn’t do up in that gallery because we were in our GB tracksuits.”
In a free vote, Parliament supported the boycott, although the 2-1 majority was less conclusive than the government had expected.
The ARA’s and the BOA’s decisions to go
It appears that the ARA was inclined initially to do what the government was asking, but on Sunday, 23 March a large group of international rowers met the ARA President and Chairman to express their views. Later that day, the ARA Council held a special meeting on the issue and voted 22-6 in favour of ‘immediate acceptance’ by the British Olympic Association of the International Olympic Committee’s invitation to participate in the Games.
Two days later, on Tuesday, 25 March, the BOA voted 18-1 to go. A government statement at the time claimed that Downing Street “seriously regrets” this decision, but the British rowing team was going to the Olympics. Some other UK sports’ governing bodies including hockey and equestrianism (Princess Anne was in that team, after all – Ed.] decided not to.
Ongoing pressure on athletes
The government continued to use strong tactics even after the BOA decision, though. As late as 23 June athletes received a letter signed by an MP and Norris McWhirter [yes, the editor of the Guinness Book of Records – Ed.] representing an organisation that called itself the National Campaign – Olympic Games Moscow – Objectors and using a letterhead that depicted barbed wire Olympic rings. Jane Cross describes this as a “hate letter,” which indicates the impact it had on her as an 18-year old.
In the letter the writers denied that economic, cultural and diplomatic sanctions were not being taken against Russia by the government although they did admit that more could have been done in those areas, and that they did not advocate any action which might harm the British economy [which was honest but really took the wind out of that argument – Ed.].
They went on to say that there was no point in taking economic sanctions as the Russian people wouldn’t hear about them, which is why they claimed it was important that countries boycotted the Games as ordinary Russians could hardly fail to notice that.
They also claimed that their organisation was not “playing politics” though didn’t put forward any reasoning as to why she might not consider this to be the case.
All of this could have been extremely intimidating, bearing in mind that Olympic athletes are, by nature, generally quite young.
The Government exercised what power it had over athletes by refusing to allow any civil servants on the team to have the paid leave they usually would have received to compete at the Olympics. Taking unpaid leave or using normal annual leave could not be prevented, though. Liz Paton, who was a civil servant, remembers, “What I was told at work was, ‘Just try and make as little noise about it as possible… nobody’ll notice you’re gone.’ We were only going to be gone for a week because rowing is always in the first week, and we were going to leave again as soon as our competition was over.”
“It was a serious issue that we shouldn’t be going, though,” she remembers, and she did seriously doubt at times whether they would go. “You just hoped and hoped and hoped that it would all work out,” she says.
The impact of the boycott on funding
The ongoing uncertainty had a serious impact on funding for the whole Olympic team. This was compounded by the impact of rampant inflation which was running at 18%, meaning that the buying power of grants awarded earlier in the year was constantly dropping.
Although the women’s squad’s sponsorship from British Home Stores was unaffected except by inflationary devaluation, other sources of funding dried up as sponsors felt their money might be wasted if the team didn’t go in the end, and because they didn’t want to be associated with something that the Government was against.
One of the victims of the budget cuts was the whole GB rowing team’s final pre-Games training camp which had been planned to take place in Varese, northern Italy. More on what some of the women’s squad did instead in due course [if you don’t already know, you’ll never guess – Ed.].
“Dan was brilliant at getting us little bits of money from here and there, though,” Liz says. “He managed to get some from the Wig and Pen Club and I remember going to a reception there, right opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, and meeting all these barristers was a lot of fun.” This seems to have been shortly before the Olympics as the group had already been issued with their official kit, including their formal suits for official occasions. “I think they’d been trying to economise on the material,” Penny Sweet recalls, “Because we had wrapover skirts but the wrap didn’t wrap very much. And the trouble was that we couldn’t sit down because if you sat down it exposed everything up to your knickers, and at one point one of the gentlemen asked us, ‘Why don’t you sit down, there’s lots of nice chairs,’ and I think somebody explained the problem to him and he went and got a whole pile of enormous table napkins that we could spread over our laps!”
Summer training, racing and selection
Final trials in Nottingham (Easter weekend, 5-6 April 1980)
Although these trials confirmed which boats would race at the four early season international regattas, exactly who was in the eight and the four remained far from finalised, with different line-ups for both boats being raced for the first two regattas and the four not being settled until after the third.
Sabaudia Training Camp (6-20 April 1980)
After the Easter trials, the sweep squad flew straight out to Sabaudia, near Rome, for a training camp using Italian boats which they borrowed out there to avoid the logistics and costs of taking their own.
“I remember it being tough. It was a definite step up from before,” Liz Paton says. “The two girls who were only just out of juniors were in tears sometimes – they had just had it. Those of us who were older [Liz was 27 – Ed.] could just get on with it, because you do when you’re older, but the younger ones were really desperate.”
Nicola agrees. “We were doing three sessions a day. It was very, very harsh. They must have been trying to deplete us of every physiological resource we had. It was quite brutal. They drove the whole lot of us completely and utterly into the ground and they were doing it deliberately. I remember saying that I thought that if they made us any more tired than we already were, one of us was going to injure ourselves just from picking up a weight crooked or something and I thought it had gone beyond the point of reasonableness. We were massaging our legs between sessions because they were just solid knots.”
The double’s training camp in Koblenz
In the run up to Mannheim regatta, Sue and Astrid headed to Koblenz for a two week training camp based at Astrid’s old club there and staying at her mum’s.
The ARA had arranged for them to get a new Empacher which was (cheaply) delivered straight there from the German manufacturer’s facility, and then picked up by the ARA trailer on its way through to Mannheim.
Mannheim Regatta (26-27 April 1980)
According to ARA Club News, both Beryl and Pauline both won on separate days in the single sculls, from reasonably substantial fields.
The double also did well, finishing second on the Saturday out of 16 entries, five seconds behind the Russian national crew, but ahead of the Czechs. For Sue, who had previously raced internationally in ‘development’ crews, this was a major step forward and, “It was the first time I’d beaten Eastern bloc people!,” she says.
The coxed four that was entered was Nicola Boyes, Penny Sweet, Liz Paton and Jane Cross, coxed by Sue Brown. It came fourth out of six entries on the Saturday.
A quad also raced on both days, entered as Mary Wilson, Julia Corbin, Clare Hodgson, Jane Curry and cox Susie Hall. They finished sixth out of six on the Saturday.
The eight had three-boat straight finals on both days. The crew entered was Jo Toch, Gill Hodges, Steph Price, Gill Webb, Bridget Buckley, Rosie Clugston, Lin Clark, Bev Jones and cox Pauline Wright.
Yvonne Earl and Clare Bayles were entered in the pair on both days but did not race again after this.
Summer training for the sweep group
The sweep group’s training schedule from the end of April onwards showed quite how much time off work they’d all had to take, where they could, with morning outings at 8.45am Hammersmith or 9am at Thorpe Park every day except Mondays and Fridays, and evening sessions starting at 4.30pm at Thorpe or 5pm at Hammersmith.
The weights sessions at Paddington School seem to have stopped at the end of May. Penny Sweet says that Dan told her at 30-year reunion for the squad in 2010 that he felt, in hindsight, that this was too early. “He treated us the same way as he did the men,” she explains, “But he hadn’t realised that women’s physiology isn’t quite the same as men’s he should have carried on the weight training a bit longer because he thought we’d already lost some of our strength by the time we were doing the race.”
Seat racing at Thorpe Park (2-3 May 1980)
- Nicola Boyes beat Jo Toch by 1.25 lengths.
- Steph Price beat Bridget Buckley by 1.7 lengths.
- Penny Sweet beat Gill Hodges by 0.3 lengths.
- Jo Toch beat Bridget Buckley by 0.3 lengths.
- Gill Hodges beat Jane Cross by 0.3 lengths on aggregate after two races, with one winning each but by different distances.
- Rosie Clugston beat Steph Price by 1 length and a canvas on aggregate.
- Gill Hodges beat Pauline Janson by 4 lengths.
- Rosie Clugston (bowside) beat Lin Clark by 0.625 lengths
- Jo Toch beat Steph Price by 1 length and a canvas.
- Lin Clark beat Steph Price by 2 lengths.
- Penny Sweet beat Gill Webb by 2.5 lengths.
- Rosie (strokeside) beat Penny Sweet by 0.5 lengths.
Pauline Janson remember this being her first session back in a boat after eight weeks spent almost continuously in bed recovering from hepatitis.
Essen Regatta (10-11 May 1980)
“The women’s eight stole the limelight by improving from finishing 1.68 seconds behind Bulgaria on day one to winning at the second attempt,” ARA Club News reported, with the Almanack later adding, “At Essen there was the unique distinction of three British eights finishing first – the men, the women and the lightweights.” Rosie Clugston remembers, “There was a big tailwind and we won the gold medal. We had an amazing, just an amazing race.”
The crew was changed between day one and day two with Pauline Wright and Sue Brown coxing one day each, according to the programme at least. The four rowers who were not in the eight raced – unsuccessfully on both occasions – in a four coxed on by Susie Hall.
The epic battle between Pauline and Beryl in the single sculls continued, with Pauline, racing as Walton RC, gaining the upper hand and also securing a win.
Sue and Astrid in the double, “Continued to do well with second and third placings,” according to ARA Club News.
A quad of Claire Hodgson, Julia Corbin, Jane Cross and Jane Curry, coxed by Sue Brown was entered on both days, although Jane Cross doesn’t remember doing this and feels it was unlikely as she didn’t scull much. Mary Wilson may well have been in it as she was in Mannheim crew.
The junior coxless pair of Kate Panter and Belinda Holmes from Weybridge Ladies raced in the Senior B event for less experienced crews.
Firming up selection
After Mannheim, the final line-up for the rowing seats in the eight was announced:
B: Jo Toch
2: Gill Hodges
3: Lin Clark
4: Penny Sweet
5: Liz Paton
6: Rosie Clugston
7: Nicola Boyes
S: Beverley Jones
Who was going to cox the crew seems not to have been decided at this point as Pauline Wright apparently coxed them on one day at Copenhagen, and Sue Brown on the other.
A coxed four was also named:
B: Pauline Janson
2: Bridget Buckley
3: Stephanie Price
S: Jane Cross
A bit of light relief
One evening after training Jo’s parents invited the whole of the eight to come and have dinner at the hotel which they ran in Shepperton. “The River View restaurant was frequented by a lot of celebrities who either lived locally in Weybridge or were working at Shepperton film studios,” Jo explains. “We also had a lot of musicians who came into the bar including Cliff Richard, who was a good friend of my father’s.”
As luck would have it, particularly for Rosie who was “ridiculously excited,” to see him, according to Liz, he happened to come in the night that the women’s eight were there. “He came over and said, ‘Hello,’ and had a chat. It was a really nice moment,” Jo remembers.
Copenhagen International Regatta (31 May-1 June 1980)
Back to the serious stuff, the eight notched up another win at Copenhagen, finishing three seconds ahead of a West German crew with Denmark trailing in third place. ARA Club News described how the race went; “The crew went immediately into the lead and, rating 38 to West Germany’s 36, had just over half a length at 500m. In the second half the crew continued to draw away to win by just over a length in a time of 3.14.77 in a headwind.” This was promising, given the Selectors’ guide times for Olympic finallists were 3.12 in May and 3.10 in June, albeit at rates slightly lower than 38.
The four didn’t fare quite so well. On the Saturday, “The crew rated 38 after the start and held third place behind two West German crews at 500m,” according to ARA Club News. But, “In the second half of the race the Russian crew came up to third place and despite a final effort the GB four could not get back into third place.” On the Sunday the only entries were GB and Russia. “The Russian four had a good start and drew away to half a length at 500m. In the second half of the race the GB crew rowed well to close on the Russians and at the line they lost by 0.32 seconds in a time of 3.59.45 in a strong headwind.”
As mentioned earlier, Pauline Wright and Sue Brown were being ‘trialled’ by the crews under race conditions with Pauline coxing the eight one day and the four the other, and Sue doing the reverse.
After the regatta, “They asked us about was which cox we preferred,” Penny Sweet remembers. “Sue Brown was my choice. Obviously Pauline had more experience but I just found that, for me, Sue had better encouragement resources. But I must have been in a minority as Pauline got the seat.”
The double came second on both days, two seconds behind the German winners on the Saturday. “There were six entries, and after the start a West German crew immediately took a lead of one length ahead of GB with Norway third and other the crews well behind,” reported ARA Club News. “The GB crew closed on West Germany by 500m, and went away from Norway but steering badly in the headwind the GB crew could not get past the German double.”
On the Sunday, West Germany did not race but a Russian crew did. Off the start, the Norwegian crew from the day before, “Took a commanding lead with the GB crew ahead of Russia. The GB crew had difficulty in the rough water but closed at the finish to take second place in a time of 3.59.83, three seconds behind Norway.” They were also eight seconds ahead of the Russians.
The junior pair of Kate Panter and Belinda Holmes won by 13 seconds over a Czech crew in a two-boat race on the Saturday, and repeated the result the next day.
ARA Club News described the latest round of the closely-fought duel for single sculls selection:
There was an entry of 28 singles, requiring heats and semi-final. Both Mitchell and Hart sculled strongly to win their heats and qualified for the same semi-final. In the semi-final Hart rated higher throughout the race to gradually pull away and win by four seconds, with both scullers racing to win. In the final Mitchell led by nearly one length at 500m but in the second half Hart closed to almost come level. The verdict was Mitchell by 0.3 seconds in a time of 4.03.33.
The two scullers were drawn in the same heat along with Russia and the Danish sculler who had finished fourth in the final on the Saturday. There was a tremendous battle with only two to qualify and at the line Hart beat Mitchell by 0.3 seconds. The GB scullers were in separate semi-finals. In the first Hart was in the worst lane and lost ground after going through a wash. She could not quite make up the distance, finishing fourth and not qualifying for the final. In the second race Mitchell led from the start and won by a length. The final was raced in difficult conditions with Mitchell in the worst lane. The GB sculler raced well but finished third behind two West German scullers in a time of 4.35.6.
Jim Railton wrote for The Times, “It was also hoped that the women’s single sculls would have been resolved here. The private entry of Beryl Mitchell over the national team’s sponsored entry of Pauline Hart triumphed, but only just. Mrs Mitchell won the event by 27/100ths of a second on Saturday from Pauline Hart but today Mrs Mitchell was the only women’s British sculler to reach the final, finishing third behind the two West Germans Gröll and Reichmann. So these two British scullers will fight it out again on the Rotsee Lake in Lucerne in two weeks’ time.”
The remaining selection decisions
In fact, it was all sorted out back at home before Lucerne regatta. “There was a best of three trial at Thorpe Park. We dead heated on the first two and the official verdict was that she beat me by 18 inches on the third,” Pauline remembers, adding that the whole process, “Tore lumps out of both of us that season because we were just racing, racing, racing and it was always the next one, the next one. And each time we were told, ‘This is the final one, this is the one that really counts.'”
As the scullers were two of the top athletes in the squad, Dan seems always to have wanted whoever didn’t get the singles nomination to take a place in the sweep boats. As the eight was his top crew, logically this would have meant putting whoever she was into the eight, with one of the members of the Copenhagen eight then moving into the four, and one of the named four losing out on a place at the Olympics altogether.
Liz Paton remembers, “I expected that to happen. I thought Pauline would come into the eight, but other people were complaining that this wasn’t fair.” For whatever reason, the eight was left intact and Pauline was put into the four. “It was our loss,” Liz says. “Once we were out in Moscow, Pauline subbed into the eight for one training session when someone was ill and we went like the wind, but we’d clubbed together and didn’t want to know.”
Trials were held at Kingston on the Saturday between Copenhagen and Lucerne to decide the final composition of the four. Astrid and Sue were used as a pace boat and the five people for the four were swapped in and out over a series of 500m pieces.
“One minute you were on the bank watching just thinking, ‘Please don’t go so fast without me!,’ and then you’re back in the boat again, so it was really stressful,” Jane Cross remembers. In the end Stephanie Price was the one who was dropped. “It was heart-breaking as there were five girls vying for four spots,” Sue Brown remembers, but with little time before they had to perform together at Lucerne, never mind the Olympics, the new combination got on with the job as best they could.
Pauline was philosophical about it all and says it didn’t really matter to her which crew she was in once she’d failed to get the single sculls slot. “It wasn’t ideal from my perspective, but I enjoyed going to Moscow and hopefully I did something for the four.”
Lucerne Regatta (14-15 June 1980)
Lucerne is generally the largest of the early season international regattas, and entries were particularly high in 1980 because the regatta was the de facto World Championships for countries which had decided to boycott the Olympics, including the USA, Canada and West Germany.
Unusually, no Russian crews entered there at all, though. This may or may not have been related to the fact that it was announced there that two Russian rowers (one man and one woman) were being banned from racing by FISA (rowing’s governing body) after failing a drugs test at Mannheim regatta.
Astrid and Sue produced an excellent performance on the first day to qualify for the final of the double sculls from a field of around 16 crews and were lying fourth at 500m when, as Rowing magazine described it, “The US second crew came from sixth place to second, overhauling everyone and dropping the British girls to fifth place, five seconds down on the East German first boat [which won].” On the Sunday, “The double again finished fifth, falling once more from fourth over the second 500m and looking a little stodgy.” They were eight seconds behind the winners this time.
In an article in the Daily Telegraph shortly after Lucerne, Desmond Hill wrote of the double, “With America, Canada and West Germany absent [at the Olympics], they must be knocking loudly on the door for a bronze.”
In its straight final the eight managed to stay in contact with the rest of the pack until half way on the Saturday but lost nine seconds over the second half of the course to finish 12 seconds back. “They were fairly disappointed,” according to Rowing [not exactly Scoop of the Year – Ed.]. On day two, “The eight again trailed last and faded over the second 500m, showing that although they had trained hard they still lacked the necessary strength to race the Eastern bloc and top Western crew on equal terms.” They were four seconds down on winners at 500m, but 11 seconds adrift at the end.
“The newly constituted coxed four,” in its only races together before the Olympics, didn’t reach the final on either day, although they faced fairly substantial fields of 11 or 12 crews. Chair of Selectors Don Somner noted that they “recorded two good times” in an article in the Surrey Herald, although Rowing magazine’s opinion was that, “Their Olympic chances seemed to be slipping away.”
Beryl didn’t reach the final of the single sculls on the first day either, sculling over to finish fifth in the six-boat petite final of an event that had attracted about 30 entries. On the Sunday she did qualify for the grand final and although she came sixth, Rowing pronounced that this was, “A good result for her to commence her final Olympic preparations.”
Final training camps
“Dan took us all over the place because he was always looking for flat water,” Nicola remembers. This included going to the Grand Union Canal in London.
“We went to the Exeter Ship Canal for our final training camp because there was no money left, so we all climbed into a minibus and went down to Exeter together. It was good fun, but it wasn’t like Varese which we’d been to the previous year,” Liz says.
The eight boated from Exeter University’s boat house, and the crew stayed with Sue Brown’s parents and some of their friends in Honiton, even though Sue’s crew, the coxed four, weren’t there.
Nicola has less positive memories of the camp than Liz. “It wasn’t terribly successful. It was cold and the water wasn’t very good,” she remembers. “It wasn’t the preparation you would have expected for a group going out to the Olympics.”
The crew’s composite Empacher must already have been on the way to Moscow as they are rowing in the photo below in a Carbocraft. Around this time Dan rerigged the boat to include a tandem between five and four to help it go straighter.
GB women’s rowing team: Moscow Olympics 1980
The crews that were finally sent to Moscow were:
B: Gill Hodges (Tideway Scullers School)
2: Jo Toch (Weybridge Ladies RC)
3: Lin Clark (Civil Service Ladies RC)
4: Penny Sweet (Clare Relics BC)
5: Liz Paton (Civil Service Ladies RC)
6: Rosie Clugston (Borough Road College RC)
7: Nicola Boyes (Civil Service Ladies RC)
S: Beverley Jones (Upper Thames RC)
Cox: Pauline Wright1 (Civil Service Ladies RC)
Coach: Dan Topolski
1 Pauline also raced as Charing Cross Hospital BC that year.
B: Pauline Janson2 (John O’Gaunt RC)
2: Bridget Buckley (Oxford University Women’s BC)
3: Pauline Hart (Kingston RC)
S: Jane Cross (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
Cox: Sue Brown3 (United Universities WBC)
Coach: Chris George
2 Pauline is listed in the Almanack as representing Talkin Tarn ARC in 1980 but doesn’t know why as she has never had any connection with the club.
3 Sue isn’t sure why she’s listed as UUWBC. She was a member of Wadham College BC and OUWBC.
B: Sue Handscomb (Borough Road College RC)
S: Astrid Ayling (Kingston RC)
Coach: Don Somner
Beryl Mitchell (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
Coach: Mark Hayter
Three of the 15 rowers, Lin Clark, Pauline Hart and Beryl Mitchell, had all competed at the 1976 Olympic Games as well. Six others – Gill Hodges, Jo Toch, Penny Sweet, Pauline Janson, Bridget Buckley and Jane Cross – were representing Great Britain for the first time at a senior championships.
Pauline Janson, Bridget Buckley and Sue Brown were the first women from Oxford University to row for GB. The first female international who had been to Cambridge was Liz Lorrimer in 1974.
Three members of the 1980 team – Penny Sweet, Nicola Boyes and Bridget Buckley – had all done their first degrees at Clare College, Cambridge, although Bridget only started rowing when she later went to Oxford.
At the Olympics
The team flew out to Moscow on 15 July, and most of them were immediately struck by their first glimpses of a Communist country. “I remember sitting on the coach on the way from the airport and realising that we’d gone to a very, very different place from the one we were used to,” Liz Paton says. “It was an extraordinary experience. There were lots of buildings with beautiful pictures of ‘the worker’ on the ends of them, although we also noticed there was not much evidence of children. We heard that the children were all away at summer camps which sounded nice but apparently they’d actually been taken off en masse so they wouldn’t get in the way of all us Westerners coming in for the Olympics.”
Jane Cross had been to Moscow the previous year too when she was competing at the FISA Junior Championships there. “In 1979 we would see all the queues of people waiting outside the shops to get bread. It was almost like they the authorities weren’t out to impress us then, but in 1980 it felt very different and you saw what they wanted you to see,” she remembers.
The squad had to undergo sex-testing, which was done from a saliva cheek swab. “I found it very scary,” Jane says, “What if they say I’m not a woman? What if the result’s different to what you think it’s going to be?”
The opening ceremony took place in 19 July, and with the women’s rowing not starting until two days later, the GB team were able to attend without risk of much detriment to their performance.
However, although the BOA had not supported the boycott, it had eventually decided that it was important not to co-operate fully with the occasion, and the team did not take part in the parade of nations at the opening ceremony.
“We sat in the stadium and watched it, though,” Jo explains. “And it was the most incredible opening ceremony. I’d never seen anything like that. There were young girls on trampolines doing amazing gymnastics that you probably wouldn’t find any child could do in the UK.” Other highlights were a ‘card trick’ with a large section of the audience turning large cards above their heads to make mosaic pictures, and a giant version of the Games’ ‘Mischa the bear’ mascot which floated above the stadium, apparently supported by coloured balloons.
The team were generally disappointed with their official outfits which several felt were inferior to the men’s.
The 1,000m women’s races took place on Monday 21, Wednesday 23, Thursday 24 (women’s single sculls semi-finals only) and Saturday 26 July. Men’s events took place over the full course on the intervening days.
With only 43 entries across the six events, including a mere six each in the pairs, fours and eights and only seven in the doubles and quads, it was initially announced that the number of crews in the women’s finals would be limited to four. The main reason for this seems to have been that tickets had been sold for three days of women’s-only racing, and if the six-crew events were run as straight finals, the programme would be pitifully thin on the initial days. However, four-boat finals would limit the number of opportunities for crews to reach finals, which was an important goal for many.
In the end, a compromise was reached with the six-boat events having five-boat finals, and the seven-boat events also eliminating one crew through heats and a repechage to produce a six-boat final. The 11 entries in the single sculls went through a programme of heats, a repechage and four-boat semi-finals to produce a six-boat final. although in a unique move, only the two non-qualifiers from the semis would go through to the petite final to decide seventh and eighth places, with the three crews eliminated in the repechage allocated to a separate ‘petite final extraordinare’ to decide places nine to 11.
Single sculls (5th out of 11)
Beryl Mitchell, “Arrived in Moscow… full of optimism, well prepared and confident that she could gain a place in the grand final,” according to the Almanack, which tended to make over-positive pronouncements, but in this case they were justified, according to her coach, Mark Hayter.
With 11 entries, the event started with three heats; two of four and one of three from which the first two would progress straight to the semi-finals and the remainder would go to a repechage.
Beryl won her heat by over a length in the third fastest time of the day after leading the whole way. Job done so far.
In the semi-finals, “The heroine of the day was Beryl Mitchell in the single sculls, who finished second… behind the world champion Sanda Toma of Romania having gunned down Beata Dziadura of Poland. Beryl Mitchell confirmed today her world class and is in with an outside chance of a medal,” wrote Jim Railton, probably in The Times.
On a pouring wet day, Beryl finished fifth in the final. Sanda Toma of Romania won in 3.40.69 The Russian sculler was second, followed by the East German who was third in 3.43.54. The Bulgaria was fourth. Beryl time of 3.49.71 put her just over six seconds off the medals. She was the only one of the four non-Eastern bloc entries to reach the final.
Beryl is in lane 1, nearest the camera, in this video of the race.
Although Beryl and her coach were pleased with what she’d achieved, which Rowing magazine described as making “her presence felt in world class company.” Mark says he remembers thinking something along the lines of, “OK, that’s where we were aiming to get rather than just being somewhere in the small final which would have been nothing. Being in the final looked like the sort of progress which justified my helping her out.”
Somewhat bizarrely, the small final that should have been between the two scullers who were eliminated in the semi-finals turned into a row-over when only Frances Cryan of Ireland turned up, and the ‘petite final extraordinaire’ for scullers 9-11 also became a row-over for the Danish sculler who was awarded eighth place for doing so.
Eights (5th out of 6)
With just six entries in the eights, the crews went through heats and a repechage just to eliminate one crew.
The progression pattern was that only the winner of each heat would qualify directly for final with the other two going to the repechage. The British eight came second in their heat in a time of 3.18.18, about seven seconds down on the Russian winners (who did 3.11.72), but a further seven ahead of Poland.
Although this was pretty much what they must have expected for this stage of the competition, they now had to come in the first three of the four-boat repechage to make the final.
The repechage was between Britain, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland again.
Romania won in 3.10.24, and Poland were fairly convincingly eliminated, finishing in 3.24.04. The major battle was between Britain and Bulgaria for the honour of finishing second. Although the GB crew held second place for most of the race, “The Bulgarians edged past them in the final spurt to the finish,” according to an unidentified press clip. In the end, Britain did 3.15.77, which was just 0.28 seconds behind Bulgaria.
“Although it was really, really critical that we beat one crew to get to the final, I remember being terribly disappointed that the Bulgarians rowed through us in the last ten strokes or so, even though it was very, very close,” Liz says. “But it was probably the best race I ever had in that crew actually. It was a beautiful race and I didn’t actually think we could row better than we did that day. We did race our best.” Rosie just remembers it being, “A very, very hard-fought rep,” and Nicola agrees, adding that, “The repechage was the hardest race I ever did in my life.”
Three days later in the final, the British eight finished fifth and last in a time of 3.13.82 seconds, their fastest yet, although it was over eight seconds outside the medals. Sadly, the Bulgarians beat them by 3.82 seconds this time. They’d actually led the Bulgarians by 0.38 seconds at the 250m gone mark, but the Eastern bloc crew was 3.99 seconds quicker than GB over the middle 1,000m, which left the Brits too much ground to make up, although they clearly rallied in the last 250m in which they were only 0.21 seconds slower than the Bulgarians.
The GB crew is in lane 3 in this video of the final.
“We really thought – especially after that 0.27 seconds in the rep – that we could get the Bulgarians,” Liz says. “And for whatever reason it just never clicked on the Saturday at all. I think it was partly because of some people had tummy problems,” and admits to “feeling pretty ropey” herself during the two days between the rep and the final. Dan and the team management had been concerned in advance about gastro-enteritis and one of the bulletins issued to the team said, “It is suggested that it would be a reasonable precaution to take two tablets of Streptotriad [an antibiotic] daily.” Rosie had completely different issues of her own. “I had a bit of a cough anyway and I couldn’t stop coughing after the rep and sprang a rib. We didn’t have a physio for the rowing team with us but I saw one from the BOA, and I remember him getting my arms above my head and twisting me and it was absolutely excruciating! Anyway I did race the final but after that I was really in dire straits for a couple of days, so that was not a good experience for me,” she says.
In his book Boat Race: The Oxford Revival, Dan stated that although the eight was fifth, “They nearly halved the usual British women’s deficit of 18 second behind the gold medallists to ten seconds or three lengths – an enormous improvement in a three minute race – which was a direct result of their dedication.” This is a bit of an exaggeration. In Moscow, the gap from gold to GB was 10.53. The previous year, when Dan had also coached the eight, of course, their time in the petite final was 9.58 seconds slower than the winner of the grand final. The only other time there had been a British women’s eight since the ‘new era’ of international racing began when women were first included in the World Championships in 1974, was in 1975. This had been a ‘development’ crew, selected behind the coxed four in the pecking order, yet even that had ‘only’ finished 12.6 seconds behind the gold medallists.
While his stats may have been questionable, “Dan did have us very nicely peaked for the Olympics. That timing was spot on,” Nicola says.
Rosie, who went on to be an international coach herself, gives an insightful analysis of the psychology involved when, realistically, your only goal is just to get to the final:
If you look at crews now that are capable of winning medals, they need to be able to keep 2% or 3% in reserve that they’ll only have to use in the final. If you have to do your hardest race in the semi-final just to get into the final, there’s a very good chance that physically and probably more mentally, you’re just not going to be able to produce it again for that final. That’s why you often find that the results in the semi between the same crews are closer together than in the final.
So I think for us the rep probably was our final, effectively. We had to give 100% of our effort in the rep.
That said, she found the psychological side of racing easier at the Olympic regatta than elsewhere because, “Dan wasn’t able to get at us so much. Normally, he was always in your ear. He was very high-energy, and he’d constantly be trying to keep the mental intensity up, and for a lot of people that’s not appropriate. But because the men were in one tower and the women were in another and the men couldn’t come into the women’s block so we had to go and visit him if he wanted to talk to us, it actually limited the amount that he was able to get at us and I think that probably helped. It certainly helped me.”
Penny’s perspective is that, “Having looked at various Olympic Games and so on since, I feel that we were a bit overawed, just being there, and also that we’d been told what our form was and there wasn’t much hope for us really beyond getting to the final. We were doing a race like we’d been taught to but we weren’t in the game of surpassing ourselves and suddenly surprising everybody. That wasn’t in our vocabulary. We just had to do the race as we’d been taught to.”
On a different note, Liz remains convinced that the eight might have been faster had Jane Sturdy and Pauline Janson not got hepatitis and been in it, as they were both “the right size” to take on Eastern bloc athletes, and Pauline “had a brilliant rhythm.” Losing them had “a massive impact.” she says, although she’s quick to admit that having them might not have changed their result.
Coxed four (6th out of 6)
Like the eights, the coxed fours had heats and a repechage to eliminate one crew and make a five-boat final.
The British four came third in its three-boat heat, just under 20 seconds behind the second-placed Russians.
In the four-boat repechage from which three would qualify for the final, the GB crew was last again, this time just over nine seconds behind the next crew, Australia. It’s notable that it’s the two Western crews in the event which occupied the last two places. “We were at a boycott Olympics with strong Eastern bloc competitors. We were out of our league,” Sue Brown says, realistically.
The four appear fleetingly and on the far side of the course at 3’25” (Look out for the white blades of a boat rigged with a tandem on bowside) in this Australian-focused video which also contains some great footage of the Opening Ceremony [and yes, the Russian boat really is mid-coxed – Ed.]:
Double scull (7th out of 7)
“The double sculls competition started with two heats, with one from each progressing straight to the final and the remainder going to the repechage. All six of the other crews in the event were Eastern bloc.
“In the heats the GB double drew Poland and Hungary. They were down on both these crews up to the half way mark but a spirited assault took them past the Hungarians into second place,” according to the Almanack.
Their heat time was the fourth fastest of the five crews in the repechage, of which only four would progress on the final. “After previously beating the Hungarians it appeared as if it would be no problem for our crew to qualify,” the Almanack reported later, “But the girls had a bad scull and came home last, thus missing out on a much prized place in the grand final.” There was no petite final as they would have been the only crew in it.
“It was a happy crew but we got the worst result,” Astrid remembers sadly, and Sue adds, “We didn’t row our best. I think we lost our confidence in what we were doing when we were winding down.”
The Almanack summed up, saying, “This new combination… faced tough opposition all season and proved itself to be of world class standard. A place in the Olympic final of this event was always predicted for the girls. Alas, not all predictions prove to be correct.”
This video shows the range of weather conditions that the women’s events experienced, as well as showcasing the Krylatskoye course. Beryl Mitchell can be seen furthest from the camera at 9.50 in the final of the single sculls, and the women’s eight are third from the camera at 11.32 in their final, where East Germany, on the far side of GB, clearly jump the start.
Some results stats
Of the 43 women’s entries in the Moscow Olympic regatta, nine were from Western countries. Four of these were single scullers (including the British entry) and five were crew boats (of which three were British). All 15 medals went to Eastern bloc countries, six of them to East Germany. Beryl, the GB eight and the Dutch quad were the only Western finallists.
Although the Almanack can’t resist including the over-used and under-qualified phrase “both competitors and coaches gained valuable experience,” in its summary of the GB women’s rowing team, it makes the fair point that this was the first time since the start of the ‘new era’ in 1974 that two British women’s crews had reached grand finals at World Championships or Olympic regatta. Don Somner adds that, “Because so many countries didn’t go, it looked in a way like the British crews were performing poorly because our three crews boats were all last or second last, they were actually very good and there were quite a lot of countries they would probably have beaten had they been there.”
The Almanack report concluded, “Our women’s crews are probably some six to eight years behind the men in the overall picture but are clearly moving in the right direction and are steadily closing the gap on their opponents.”
The future of women’s rowing at the Olympics
The 43 entries in Moscow compared with 57 crews from 16 countries at the 1976 Olympics, the first at which women rowed, and 78 from 22 countries at the 1979 World Championships, the Moscow Olympics were numerically a low point for international women’s rowing.
The journalist and 1948 Olympic gold medallist rower Richard Burnell wrote at the end of the regatta, probably in The Telegraph, that “Women’s rowing was first introduced in the 1976 Olympics, with the proviso that demand would have to be proved by the number of entries. Of the six women’s events in Moscow, three produced only six entries and two produced seven,” and added, “It would be ironic if the Americans, who had high hopes in women’s rowing, should prove to have been instrumental, through their boycott, in forcing women’s rowing out of the Olympic Games altogether.”
Fortunately, women’s rowing retained its status as an Olympic sport, even though entries were limited again at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles which were boycotted by most of the Eastern bloc.
Around the games
Everyone remembers slightly different things from the Games. Liz was struck by, “Watching the Romanian gymnastic team not eating. It was incredible – these little girls with their two pieces of tomato if they were lucky and a bit of lean ham for their main meal. And you just thought these poor little mites they’re doing all this exercise and they’re not given any food because they had to stay small and pre-pubescent.”
Nicola remembers, “The guards with guns and the greyness of it all, and the women who came out after the afternoon rainstorms and sweep all the puddles away.” Astrid has a lasting impression of the lack of colour too, but says, “It was a historical experience to go to the last communist Olympics and have a memory of something totally different.” One positive aspect of the regime on the Games that Jo noticed was that, “Because it was a communist state they could just close all the roads to other traffic so you got to the course on time.”
One day when they were going to the course to race, Liz noticed something rather odd. “There seemed to be a trail of people making their way purposefully towards both the rowing course and the velodrome which was quite close by. And they appeared to have what looked like armed soldiers sort of walking along beside them, so Penny, who speaks a bit of Russian, asked the armed guard on our bus what this was all about. It turned out that not enough tickets had been sold for the events, probably because it was so difficult to get into Russia, and also because lots of spectators who might have come didn’t because of the boycott. So these local Muscovites had been asked or told that they had to go and be the spectators for rowing and cycling so that all the seats looked full, which I thought was quite interesting.”
Another impact of the boycott was that the team certainly wasn’t allowed to hang around enjoying themselves in the Olympic village during the second week of the Games. “We were sort of competing under protest,” Jo recalls. “I remember seeing the boxing after we’d finished racing, but then we were home and were seeing the Olympics on the TV and I was thinking, ‘Oh, but we were there last week!'”
“Not being able to stay on for the [second] week was a real shame because that would have been the fun bit,” Nicola agrees, but adds that she was also, “Immensely grateful for being allowed to go at all.” She and Jane Cross went to Aida which, she says, “Was excellent but it went on for hours and hours and hours because they have a meal between each act.” Pauline Hart also loved the cultural opportunities available. “I liked Moscow. They really treated us like honoured guests and there were fantastic things going on in the village. They put on puppet shows and classical concerts. We went to the Moscow State Circus and the Bolshoi ballet and it was a very interesting experience because that was Soviet Russia in all its pomp.”
In 2010 the Moscow team marked 30 years since they’d all raced together by going for a reunion paddle in an eight and a quad which apparently got rather competitive [who would have thought? – Ed.].
Mischa the bear joined them for tea afterwards.
And in 2012, shortly before the London Olympics, they were invited to a celebratory tea for all British rowing Olympians at Henley Royal Regatta. “Having missed out on the traditional tea with the Queen after Moscow, because of the boycott, I was really chuffed to go to this special event,” Penny Vincent-Sweet says.
FISA Junior Championships 1980
These took place in Hazewinkel and, “A large Junior Women’s team was sent to gain experience,” according to the Almanack, which added, “Real progress is being made in this area, which was virtually non-existent three seasons ago.”
The team included an eight for the first time as well as a coxed four, pair and single sculler:
B: Alison Liney (WLARC)
2: Sam Wensley (WLARC)
3: Clare Carpenter (Thames RC)
4: Judith Burne (King James College)
5: Kate Holroyd (Bradford ARC)
6: Sara Prentice (Llandaff BC)
7: Scilla Panter (WLARC)
S: Melanie Holmes (WLARC)
Cox: Barbara Handscomb (TTRC)
Coach: Andy Crawford
Coxed four (Wallingford School)
B: Judith Maple
2: Susan Allen
3: Joanne Holmes
S: Susan Howard
Cox: Ruth Aitken
Coach: Roger Brown
Coxless pair (WLARC)
B: Kate Panter
S: Belinda Holmes
Coach: John Biddle
Katie Ball (Broxbourne RC)
Coach: Ray Woods
Katie Ball didn’t qualify for the final in her 14-boat event, and the four and the eight were both eighth out of eight. With half of the eight also being eligible for juniors, the group was able to develop further on the following year
Much was expected of the pair, who had raced at the Junior Championships the previous year in the coxed four, and justifiably so because they’d been going well in training, often alongside the GB women’s senior squad, encouraged by Dan Topolski. Unfortunately, they suffered from a series of unfortunate events in the run up to the Championships and in their straight final. First, they collided with a barge in training which not only wrote off their boat but also left them badly shaken. Although they then managed to borrow a boat, in which they won both the junior and senior pairs (in the absence of the senior team) at the National Championships less than a week later, it was too big for them and, as Kate explained to the Surrey Herald just before the FISA Championships, “It has been a real challenge to keep our confidence up.”
Sadly, their troubles did not end when they got to the Championships as one of their gates broke or popped open while they were leading their straight final, and their boat overturned.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2018.