The toxic RE(al)M of rowing: racism, elitism, misogyny

Toxicity in sport is hardly a novel phenomenon. It’s competitive nature predisposes most athletes to an ‘every man for himself’ mindset. This is perhaps most damaging in that it restrains communal action against structural biases, enabling toxic environments to fester. This ‘toxicity’ has many faces but is most commonly presented as institutional racism, class division, or misogyny. While evident in almost all sports, the rowing world is a particularly distinct example of this.

Rowing is a quintessentially English sport; known for its ‘old boys club’ image.  This is apparent in its overwhelmingly white male majority at practically every level. Particularly at the oversight level — where across the nation, the sport is more or less run by middle aged white men.

Inclusion is a distant conversation when members of the community are reluctant to even acknowledge that there is change required.

Take Henley Royal Regatta (HRR), for instance. The most prestigious amateur rowing event in the world, it is governed by the HRR’s Committee of Management, which is comprised of the most senior Stewards. The official website for HRR discloses how one can become a Stewards’ member; ‘applicants must be supported by two existing Members. The waiting list is currently between five and eight years.’ An elitist precedent is set here by those at the very top of the rowing world and predictably it has a trickle-down effect.

The nepotism is evident in the first half of the requirements, while the latter half exemplifies the exclusivity. The previously mentioned white male majority remains here too. In fact, the first female Steward was only admitted in 1997, and to date there have been no BAME members. So, it hardly comes as a shock when this example is mimicked subsequently at lower levels.

At junior level, the sport is almost entirely exclusive to public/top-end private institutions or at costly private clubs – so already at this level there is a barrier to entry for those without that privilege. This wealth divide persists throughout as the expenses are high and few subsidies exist. 

…appears to hearken back to the mid-twentieth-century’s eugenics-like rhetoric.

Private school students are predominantly white. This comes as a surprise to no one. If we extrapolate from this it becomes clear; rowing is a white sport. A hugely pressing issue no doubt, but what is it that makes this situation toxic?

Well, a situation from earlier this year well exemplifies this. In around January, a rower from a particularly renowned club posted a TikTok of a land training session. The video blew up. But quite rapidly people noticed something – everyone in the video was white. The comments were flooded with this observation and people questioning the lack of diversity. If you expected a reflective and conscientious response, you would be sorely disappointed. Instead, the response of many individuals within the club was to lament over the valid criticisms, claiming that this was not structural racism at play, but rather they just picked the most talented people. An awfully sinister response, which, if dwelled upon for any particular amount of time, appears to hearken back to the mid-twentieth-century’s eugenics-like rhetoric.

This very dismissal breeds the toxicity that has pervaded the rowing community. Inclusion is a distant conversation when members of the community are reluctant to even acknowledge that there is change required.

In rowing, as in most other sports, men’s events are glorified and seen as more prestigious than those of women. Take Henley again – you have Henley Women’s Regatta (HWR) and then Henley Royal Regatta. Originally a male only Regatta, HRR has over the last two decades began to introduce women’s events. Even so, HWR remains the apogee of the women’s racing season. Having two separate events isn’t inherently problematic but becomes an issue when HWR receives little to no respect, relative to HRR. Simply a glance at the titles reveals the stark discrepancy in how the two are perceived – only one receives the honour of ‘royalty’.

Male counterparts often looked down upon HWR as ‘fake Henley’

During my own time in the rowing world, I saw the divide in how the two were regarded. Male counterparts often looked down upon HWR as ‘fake Henley’; a mindset so pervasive, for some time, I myself came to consider it as such.

There is something incredibly insidious about the fact that men’s rowing remains in higher regard due to its historic significance. Admittedly, it has been around for much longer. However, the very reason for this is the systemic misogyny that barred women from competing in the first place. And so, ironically, the legacy of men’s rowing that is used to place it on a pedestal is built upon historical bigotry.

The gender bias is not just present in the treatment of women’s rowing, but also in the response to attempts by individuals to address this concern. For instance, earlier this year an Oxford University student created an Instagram account, spurning from her blog (created in 2015), with a focus on the female rowing experience. Among the topics she discussed were body image, gender inequality, and the experience of BAME women.

Undoubtedly, the response from other women was strong. Many felt the acknowledgement and recognition of these matters validated their experience and were pleased to see an account that did so given the scarcity of platforms such as this one. However, this was not a unanimous response. Backlash came in the form of body-shaming and sexism, to the extent that the individual behind the account decided to delete it. While eventually she changed her mind and instead went private, this saga speaks to a wider problem within the rowing community.

As with racism, considering solutions is farfetched, when the very attempts to discuss the subject are vilified and shut down before they can even begin.

So where does this all leave the future of rowing? Inclusivity, with respect to gender, race, and socio-economic standing, has improved over the last few decades, undoubtably. But at what rate? Is it acceptable that in 2020 we are still waiting for first POC Stewards’ member? Or for mere recognition that membership to the community is not based essentially on merit; but rather that it is inaccessible to entire demographics?

And what of those scarce few who made it past all the hurdles? What of the doubt that fester in the minds of these individuals – the gaslighting of their lived experiences and the imposter syndrome they cannot help but to suffer through?

Rowing needs to change, without a doubt. But before that, it needs to realise that it needs change.

by Resham Khan

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