We have been watching on TV New Zealand crews at the world rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia. They’ve been doing very well (so far). I realised that it is almost exactly 40 years since I watched a race which was an important step along New Zealand’s path to success in world rowing.
In 1971 I been working in Stockholm for almost a year when a friend, Dick Joyce, wrote to advise that he would be in Denmark and would I like to catch up with him there? Dick was a rower, a very good one. He’d won a gold medal in the Fours at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico and in 1971 was a member of the New Zealand Eight. That crew was regrouping after a disappointing result in Mexico and the ’71 European Championships was an important buildup for the Munich Olympics.
It worked out very well. I was able to get the night train from Stockholm down to Copenhagen and met up with Dick at Roskilde. I was able to stay with the team at a university hostel. Conversations however were focused entirely on one thing: the big race the following day. He explained that the opposition was the formidable East German crew. Not only had they been unbeaten in the previous three years, but they had led every race from start to finish. It was fascinating watching him. He would quite frequently become silent, apparently oblivious to everything around him. Occasionally I could see his fists clench or muscles tighten as the tension built up, then he would relax and be back with us again.
Dick explained that their strategy was to try to unsettle the East Germans. The general view was that the New Zealanders didn’t have a chance. They would try to capitalise on this, behave before the race like nervous, scatty youngsters overawed by the occasion. Then shock the East German crew by beating them out of the gates, which no one had managed to do. I remember Dick saying that every time they glanced across to the East German rowers the New Zealanders had been told to smile. The feeling was that only by knocking them off their stride could the New Zealanders won against a crew which was probably faster.
Well, that’s how it went. Before the race, the New Zealanders were horsing around. They even threw their cox in the water (usually only done by the winning crew after the race). Incidentally, I love the casual dress code. John Hunter on the left with his walk shorts and my friend Dick with his favourite brown shorts. At least they were wearing New Zealand T shirts.
I could see the East Germans looking at them with contempt. (I quite like this next photo, which I felt had rather a symbolic ring to it at the time.)
I been given a New Zealand tracksuit and pass which got me into the main grandstand. Great seat, just a few rows back from the King of Denmark, sitting next to a couple of Swedish rowers. I heard them saying in Swedish that it was a pity this guy was going to be disappointed. His crew had done well but were now going to be slaughtered by the East German crew. (I didn’t let on that I could speak Swedish.) It was a reasonable assumption. By the time the Eights came around, the last event on the program, East Germans had won every race except for the single sculls.
I had intended to photograph the race but got much too excited. At the 500 m mark, the scoreboard showed the New Zealanders were ahead (much to the surprise of my Swedish neighbours). That’s the way it stayed, with New Zealand winning by a few metres only. “Det var förbannat bra, vad?” (That was f**king good, eh?”) I said to the surprised Swedes on my right. I at last remembered to take a photograph, just as they crossed the line.
I do love this next one, showing the utterly exhausted crew below the scoreboard. The crowd was of course delighted to see the underdogs win.
The medal ceremony followed almost immediately. It looks as if the crew are still recovering.
Then it was back in the boat for a victory paddle.
So here’s the author, 40 years younger, with his victorious friend.
And once again, Dick Joyce, European champion 1971.
There was a sequel to this for me. After the race a local restaurant owner had turned on free beer. After almost a year of paying Swedish prices for alcohol, I made the most of it. One of the Danish officials was detailed to gather up me and my luggage and put me in a taxi for the night train back to Stockholm. That was very necessary! I remember telling the taxi driver all about the magnificent victory (in Swedish). “You speak Danish a lot better than those f**king Swedes” he said at the end of the journey. An important insight into the differences between the two languages.
There was of course a sequel for the New Zealand crew as well. The following year they went on to take Gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics. We managed to watch that race too, in a department store in Lichtenstein, but that’s another story.