LONDON (Reuters) - Having carped for years that Britons only succeed at rowing because they like sports where they can sit down, Australia now stand in the way of the home nation and favourites in some of the biggest Olympic races of the regatta.
British rowing has delivered at least one Olympic gold medal in every Games since 1984, largely through the exploits of now retired Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, and they are under pressure to deliver again on Dorney Lake in the first week of the Games.
Looking to get the home nation off to a strong start and begin the climb up the medal table, the squad set themselves a target of six medals to match their feat in Beijing where they topped the rowing table comfortably ahead of Australia.
However, the flagship British men’s four, which has won gold in the last three Olympic Games, was beaten last month by an experienced Australian four, while the British men’s eight will have to overcome a dominant German crew in the frantic sprint that always ensues.
The lightweight men’s double scull, which claimed the second of Britain’s two gold medals at the 2008 Games, started the season well but lost by some distance in the last two international races of the season.
“In a third of the races it’s going to be us or the Poms,” Australian Olympic rowing great James Tomkins told Reuters in a recent interview. “A real battle of the Ashes. It could be great for us or really poor for us.”
Britain’s most successful Olympian Redgrave believes Britain is entering the Games with its strongest team -- with the women’s squad favourite for two gold medals -- but he cautions that the athletes will have to take a hyped up home crowd in their stride.
The British men also have a habit of peaking in time for the biggest race of the year, led by Jurgen Grobler, one of the most successful coaches in the sport.
“I think it’s the strongest rowing team that we’ve sent to any major championships anywhere, it’s a simple as that,” Redgrave said.
“There’s going to be the excitement of the whole nation in looking forward to the Games, (especially) in a sport that is up there consistently, that are good medal winners at previous Games. So it’s a good sport to be involved in at this time.”
The men’s four will spearhead the Australian team while sports fans in New Zealand will be praying for Mahe Drysdale, the hugely popular single sculler who has dominated the sport for years, to bring home gold.
Having won three successive world titles from 2005, Drysdale entered the Beijing Games as the clear favourite to take the Olympic title but was struck down on the eve of the race with a virus.
Despite suffering from dehydration, he jumped out to a lead on the flat calm lake before being overhauled in the final metres by the 2004 champion Olaf Tufte of Norway. A vomiting Drysdale was then taken away for treatment and had to be helped on to the podium to receive his bronze medal.
“The decision to continue in 2008 was ‘do I love the sport? Can I still improve? And the answer to that was ‘yes’.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford