World Rowing Champs: story of Kiwi can-do

Don Rowlands
Don Rowlands

A WEEK before the 1978 world rowing championships began, Don Rowlands was knee-deep in Lake Karapiro, setting the course, when he broke his arm.

The chairman of the organising committee had spent the past 18 months on the tools, building from nothing the facilities to host an event which would eventually attract 100,000 Kiwis and rowers from 28 nations to rural Waikato. It may have meant the esteemed posteriors of PM Robert Muldoon and Keith Holyoake perched on wooden benches in a scaffolding grandstand, but this was the archetypal No8 wire Kiwi can-do event. Rowlands gave his speech at the closing ceremony with his arm in a sling and a "buggered back" from lifting boats with one arm.

Thirty-two years later, the organisers of the next world championships to hit New Zealand, now just 105 days away, don't have to be so hands-on. "It's a different world," Rowlands says. But then the now 84-year-old points to his packed swag in his hallway, and talks of how every fortnight, as the event's on-water special projects manager, he leads a crew of fellow retirees on overnight working bees to build specialist equipment. It's not the only similarity between 1978 and 2010 – rowing remains dominated by European nations but New Zealand is again winning medals and the world wants to know how.

WHEN ROWLANDS smashed his arm with a winch, doctors in Hamilton sent him home with antibiotics before his own GP realised it was broken. He had to argue against being admitted to hospital for three days. When it came time to pack down after the week's racing, he had another accident involving a box of oars and a nail was driven into his thigh.

New Zealand had been provisionally awarded the event in 1974, but not until the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was that confirmed. It left Rowlands and his committee – without a single paid employee – little time. They built start and finish towers, a main centre, a temporary grandstand. TPMcLean advised them on media relations: his main suggestion being the provision of a bar.

The army came in to do the catering, offering unlimited servings to competitors. The Auckland Star reported they consumed 500 sirloin steaks, 70kg of sausages, 700 apple pies, 1200 sausage rolls and 55 large cheesecakes a day. A company offered Rowlands 13 kit houses as temporary offices.

"It was a lot less bureaucratic," he says now. "There was no such thing as resource consent and traffic management and all the other things modern organisers have to contend with."

That approach extended to more difficult conundrums. Rowlands negotiated handshake deals with the Russians and South Africans to avoid any political difficulties. He dodged the issue of nations demanding he pay for the transport of their skiffs by agreeing to buy them at the end of the championships at factory prices, and sell them on to local clubs.

Having struggled for money (Rowlands told journalists a month out he was $100,000 short and the Sunday News ran an appeal to readers to send cash, which raised just under $3000), the championships were a success and returned a profit of $155,149. Rowlands said they sold every grandstand seat and plenty of general admission tickets, but has no way of knowing an exact attendance. He reckons around 20,000 came for the Saturday finals.

But it was also low-key. Schoolteacher Alison Crooks, the medal-bearer back in 1978 (she still has the cushion she delivered those medals on, and used to bring it to school athletic days), remembers being asked casually to do the job. She has no photos of the event, something she regrets.

"It was not a big thing back then... I probably didn't appreciate how significant it actually was," says Crooks, who runs the schools liaison programme which will welcome thousands of kids to the event's opening days and see 40 Waikato schools "adopting" a nation.

Dave Rodger, who was in the eight, New Zealand's only medal-winning boat that year (bronze, in the final race of the regatta), says he was conditioned to block out the pressure of racing at home or the magnitude of the event. Not until the closing ceremony, when three waka sailed out of the bay, did it become "a very emotional moment. This was New Zealand presenting itself to the world".

For Rodger, who sold advertising for the Waikato Times and lived in Cambridge, it was a rare taste of sporting celebrity. Philips sponsored the eight boat and Rodger kept his free shaver, "even perhaps once the blade had worn out and she was a bit rickety".

They were boozy days. The punters allegedly drank 69,120 cans of Leopard lager. The Herald reported local ladies saying of the visiting rowers: "They leave most Kiwi guys for dead... I just love looking at those guys because they are so tall and muscular and have really good thighs."

Crooks' abiding memory is hearing deep voices and turning around to find burly Eastern Bloc women, not men. It was an era where the Germans won everything until a Rowlands-coached eight won at the 1971 European Championships in Copenhagen and at Munich the following year. A German film unit came to study the Kiwi rowers and was amazed to see they were still part-timers.

The championships had never before been to the southern hemisphere and this sense of curiosity may have swung it. Rowlands was persuasive, and had an important patron in Thomi Keller, the Swiss president of world rowing. Rodger says: "The European nations got inquisitive how a small country did so well overseas and were keen to come and see, and perhaps it's a little bit the same [now]: they'd like to come and meet us on our own ground."

DON ROWLANDS' next visitor, after the Sunday Star-Times, at his waterfront Panmure home of 40 years was the event chief executive, Tom Mayo. "He's got so much insight, he knows what hurdles we are going to face. He's an almanac," says Mayo, an affable former British international middle-distance runner. "I go and have a cup of tea with him and he helps solve my problems. He's never underestimated to me the amount of work or let me get complacent."

Rowlands puts it a little differently: "He likes to now and again check things with the old fella. We've [the 1978 veterans] been through the smoke and flames."

While Rowlands rather disconcertingly runs a finger across a photo of the 1978 organising committee, all blazers and muttonchops, and pronounces at least half to be dead, most of the survivors are still involved with the 2010 event.

Of course, a lot has changed. Mayo has a team of nine fulltime staff and 700 applications for a 550-strong volunteer programme. Nearly 300 are already at work, led by Tauranga-mother-of-three Ruth Tuiraviravi, who remembers attending the 1978 event as a 14-year-old schoolgirl. "We were able to see the racing close up and mingle with some of the athletes... it made a huge impression on me." She took up rowing and won nine national titles.

A finish tower (named after Rowlands) is the only building left to complete for 2010. Offices, toilets, car parks, roads and a permanent grandstand are done. "We could hold it next week," says a relieved Mayo. Having battled early to attract sponsors, they hit the $5.8 million sponsorship budget in May, then began pushing tickets and have shifted 21,000 already.

"It's a different world," says Rowlands. "This one will be much more professional, much more colourful. Ours was certainly good for the day. Dick Burnell, a famous British rower who was the correspondent for The Times, declared it the greatest show on water."

Then he talks about his trips to Karapiro with his old mates, and admits happily: "It's a bit reminiscent of 78."

Sunday Star Times