Saturday, January 07, 2006

Is Lightweight Rowing a "Dying Animal?"

Thinking about how many schools race lightweight women’s boats brings to mind a series of posts that appeared on the Rowers’ World message boards back in November. Several people were lamenting the low number of serious men’s lightweight programs and made some comments that are often applied to both men’s and women’s lightweight rowing. The gist of the discussion was that “lightweight rowing is a dying animal” and that only the Sprints schools have any real interest in perpetuating it.

The arguments seem to be, 1) USRowing doesn’t support lightweight rowing, 2) there are few Olympic lightweight events, 3) only the Sprints schools are competitive at the collegiate level and anyone else who tries to race them gets smoked. These same arguments are often applied to women’s lightweights so let’s forget about the men right now and just concern ourselves with women.

I think it’s true that USRowing doesn’t support lightweight rowing, but I also think this will change. Some of this change will come more quickly because with the USOC emphasis on medal count, USRowing must emphasize small boats. In a quantitative world a lightweight 2x gold counts as much as an 8+ gold. We see the national team already emphasizing small boats and those coaches will love whichever boat offers the best chance of medaling, lightweight or not. Secondly, I believe that FISA will begin to emphasize lightweight rowing more. Given that the Olympic lightweight events constantly seem to be in danger of elimination, this may sound crazy, but the recent vote on the elimination of all of rowing has made FISA understand that the sport needs to become more popular around the world. What’s the best way to do that? More lightweight events so even nations with athletes of smaller stature can compete. If lightweight rowing becomes more prominent internationally, it will be encouraged at the collegiate level.

I continue to believe that the argument that there is no point in boating a lightweight 8+ because you’ll just get smoked by the Sprints schools is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Schools put together half hearted light eights, send them to IRAs, and then wonder why they bothered when they don’t come close to the top tier. Well guess what – those schools that get their lightweight butts handed to them at IRAs would also get their heavyweight butts handed to them by Sprints schools. I say would because their heavyweights don’t even get invited to the NCAAs (the poor stepsister to the IRAs for heavyweight women). The priority boat in these programs (ECAC and Dad Vail schools) is the heavy eight and still they would get hammered by the Sprints schools. So what exactly is the point here? In fact, only in lightweight events can these schools get anywhere near a national championship (other than breaking into Div I and Div II as the heavies do).

This is where we usually hear the argument that putting together a lightweight 8+ would pull rowers from the heavy 8+, making that boat slower. This is undoubtedly true, but why would coaches prefer to win Dad Vail or ECAC than win the light eight at IRAs? If they think it’s more prestigious to win the heavy eight at Dad Vail than the light eight at IRA, there’s a serious image problem. In fact, we all know that there is a serious image problem with lightweight rowing, and it’s a problem propagated by certain coaches, athletic administrators, and doctors. These people want us to believe that women can’t control their weight without becoming anorexic or bulimic. This greatest of rowing canards creates tremendous pressure against lightweights and keeps the IRA champions from getting their proper due. If Wisconsin’s lights were celebrated as much as Cal’s heavies last year, if lightweight results counted in team points at major regattas, if Rowing News talked about the Wisco Era as they talk about the Harvard Era, schools might actually aspire to race lightweights. (Wisconsin gets it.) In the process they would give more rowers a chance to compete at a higher level of excellence and win more races.

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