Rowers show once again why they're our best

New Zealand's rowing medalists show off the hardware they gathered during the London Olympics regatta. (From left) Peter Taylor, Storm Uru, Hamish Bond, Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray, Joseph Sullivan, Nathan Cohen, (being held) Rebecca Scown and Juliette Haigh.
New Zealand's rowing medalists show off the hardware they gathered during the London Olympics regatta. (From left) Peter Taylor, Storm Uru, Hamish Bond, Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray, Joseph Sullivan, Nathan Cohen, (being held) Rebecca Scown and Juliette Haigh.

The achievements of New Zealand's elite rowers must have finally silenced the yearly hub-bub that surrounds their domination of the Halberg awards.

The victories by Mahe Drysdale and Hamish Bond and Eric Murray have again established them as favourites to win Sportsperson and Team of the Year gongs for 2012 at the awards ceremony early next year following their Olympic golds, while team-mates Joseph Sullivan and Nathan Cohen will give the men's pair competition after their London triumph.

Each year, on the back of their successes at World Cup events in Europe, followed by world championship triumphs, rowing features heavily among Halberg winners - over the past decade, rowing has won 14 Halberg gongs, including three supreme awards.

And each year media and sports followers alike somehow ponder whether those deserts are just.

What's now beyond argument is that this country's rowers are our world's-best athletes.

Three gold and two bronze at the Games, aligned with five other boats in the top 10, made the sport a clear standout for New Zealand at London, with sailing collecting silver.

In December, I wrote a column saying that while the All Blacks were obvious favourites to win the 2011 Team of the Year award following their World Cup triumph, I could make a compelling case for Bond and Murray.

Unlike the All Blacks, the Kiwi pair were never beaten last year and were so dominant they chased away their only serious Olympic competition - the British duo of Pete Reed and Andrew Triggs Hodge headed to the four to claim Olympic gold last weekend.

Imagine if the All Blacks were so good that France didn't bother showing up at the World Cup.

In London, Bond and Murray shrugged off the weight of expectation that came with being raging hot favourites, churning out a world's-best time in the heats and never giving their rivals a sniff in the semis or final.

Drysdale's single sculls gold was the highlight of New Zealand's participation in London, while coach Dick Tonks will now add more silverware to his collection - which probably gathers dust in his shed - after coaching Drysdale and the pair.

Rowing's detractors will say it's not a truly worldwide sport - it's chiefly contested by Europe, North America and Australasia.

Yet there are very few truly worldwide sports - only football and basketball immediately spring to mind - and rowing's potential to spread got a boost when the South African lightweight men's four which won gold contained stroke Sizwe Ndlovu, who became the first black man in South African rowing to win gold.

Middle and long-distance running, however, remains chiefly the domain of the African nations, which made the bid from Nick Willis to win a second Olympic medal in London hugely meritorious.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when the Kiwi finished third (later promoted to second), 23 born-and-bred Africans contested the 1500m event. Thirteen made the semis and seven contested the the final.

In Beijing, Willis and Frenchmen Mehdi Baala and Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad were the only non-Africans to win a medal at any distance between 800m and the marathon.

That continued a notable trend. In 2004, the only non-Africans to win medals in the middle and long-distance races were Yuriy Borzakovskiy (Russia), Rui Silva (Portugal) and Italy's Stefano Baldini. In Sydney 2000, only Nils Schumann of Germany, winner of the 800m, broke the African stranglehold.

Much has changed since Peter Snell and Murray Halberg triumphed in Rome in 1960. When Snell won the 800m, his rivals included just two African runners in the heats - one from Ethiopia and one from Ghana.

Four years later in Tokyo, when Snell did the 800m/1500m double, two Kenyans (including Wilson Kiprugut, who won bronze), an Ethiopian, and a Tanganyikan contested the 800m, while the great Kip Keino made his Olympic debut in the 1500m but failed to make the final, along with Ethiopia's sole entrant.

Things began to change in 1968. Keino won gold in the 1500m at Mexico while Africans swept the 5000m and 10,000m.

The resurgence of the Finns in 1972, coupled with the African boycott of Montreal 1976, temporarily halted the African rise, as did the GB trio of Steve Ovett, Seb Coe and Steve Cram at the next two Games. But by the turn of the century, it was again a rarity to see a non-African medal.

That should remind Kiwis should keep their perspective over Olympic achievements. We should endeavour to stay classy, too, in defeat.

Even before Valerie Adams contested the women's shot put final, a Fairfax colleague cast aspersions on the form shown by eventual gold medal winner Nadzeya Ostapchuk.

The story said the Belarussian "supposedly recorded a throw of 21.39 metres" and added "close examination of Ostapchuk's career progression and supposed biggest throws reveal they all happen in her home country, Belarus".

Hmmm. Does the expression “magic tape measure” spring to mind?" Other media outlets nearly broke their ankles and tore their hamstrings so quickly did they jump on to the belittling bandwagon.

When the Belarussian tape measure industry was justified by Ostapchuk's dominance in London, we were left looking small.

What would this country's reaction be should our star performers at London be accused of suspect behaviour in aiding their victories, like Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen?

The outrage would dwarf anything Twitter troll Stephen Jones can muster.

The worst we've had to deal with here was Mark Reason's cheap shot this week that Drysdale "is widely regarded as a good bloke in his own sport, a tag that might not always be applied to the supreme men's pair of Bond and Murray".

Having attended somewhat more training sessions and regattas featuring the duo than Reason has, let's put that nonsense to rest immediately.

Not that the Kiwi pair would give a toss.

Waikato Times