Rowing: riches vs raw talent

You are 27 times more likely to win an Olympic rowing medal if you went to private school.

The statistics surrounding rowing indicate rowing in the UK is typically found in richer areas and mostly practised at private schools.

Similarly the most successful rowing universities having a higher ratio of privately educated students. The University of Bristol is one of these universities.

Statistics from February 2017 show Bristol has an intake of 61.4 per cent of state educated students. Given that 93 per cent of the population are state educated, this isn’t a high figure.

So how is the newer and developing University of the West of England rowing club coping with competing against the top rowing universities? This includes their local competition, Bristol University boat club.

“We are building on these successes year on year.”

The Bristol rowing varsity claims to be the second oldest in England after the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. It’s an annual event where the two universities go head to head in four races over a distance of 1.3km. This includes novice women’s and men’s races, as well as the senior races.

UWE’s senior women’s captain Lucy Long said: “UWE as a club are getting the results and we are building upon these successes year on year. This year our seniors are definitely the underdogs, but the novice races will be close.”

Although varsity this year didn’t go as UWE had hoped, the result is getting closer every year. UWE won for the first time in 2003, holding the title until 2007 when Bristol took back the crown. Since then it has been a tight competition with the current standings at: UoB 15, UWE eight.

The increased investment in the sport at UWE is a contributing factor to their improved results. The scholarship programme also opens the door to a larger talent pool of potential athletes.

Marek Šimoník is a rower from the Czech Republic who has received such a scholarship.

Bristol have been investing significantly in their club. A new £1.2 million rowing centre for the club opened in 2014, providing state of the art equipment and facilities.

There is also room to extend the building; suggesting Bristol are looking to develop their club in the future. Their more recent steady form since 2014 could be down to the increased investment.

The John Rutley Boathouse has seven boat racks and indoor training facilities. Photo credit: Chloe Dell
The John Rutley Boathouse has seven boat racks and indoor training facilities. Photo credit: Chloe Dell

UWE also have plans for the future for their club. However they are a few years behind Bristol and are currently investing in their own boathouse along the canal from Wycliffe College, where they currently train.

UWE have plans to extend the club along the canal. Photo credit: Chloe Dell
UWE have plans to extend the club along the canal. Photo credit: Chloe Dell

BUCS (British Universitites & Colleges Sport) is another prominent competition for universities and the league universities compete in most sports. There are two rowing BUCS events every year, the time trial head race held in February and the side by side lane regatta in May.

The top ten universities rarely change position in the table and all have a reputation for being either ‘rowing cities’, or rowing universities. In other words if you want to be an Olympic rower, you need to go to one of these ten universities.

UWE’s progress reflects their slow but steady improvement in the BUCS’ league table for rowing. In 2011/12 UWE sat at 19 and UoB 16. In 2016/17 UWE is at 13 and UoB 14 with a difference of five points between the two.



The points difference between the top university in 2016/17 (Edinburgh) and Bristol and UWE is significant. Although just outside the top ten the points difference is nearly 200. The eight universities shown in the table have dominated the top five places  since 2011.

What about diversity?

The increased number of GB start programmes initiated by British Rowing and the scholarships available at universities, suggests the net is widening for others who aren’t necessarily from privileged backgrounds, to start rowing.

Mohamed ‘Moe’ Sbihi, GB Olympic medallist is a prime example of this. Moe  is of Moroccan origin and a devout Muslim. He won a sports scholarship at university which started his successful career as a rower. Moe was the first practising Muslim to row for Britain at the 2012 Olympics.

Is the ‘legacy’ still living on?

With a promise of increased diversity after London 2012 it was surprising to learn that Rio 2016 was even less diverse than London. There were less women, ethnic minorities and state educated athletes competing for Team GB.

The former shadow sports minister and Labour MP Clive Efford was quoted as saying in 2016 that athletes from private schools were more likely to lead the “sitting and going backwards” sports.

There is a question mark over how much of an impact the Olympics have had in the long run, in encouraging people from all walks of life to take up sport.

Useful links:

UWE Sport

Bristol Boat Club


GB Start

Are you a student rower struggling to compete with the top universities? Let us know on Twitter @UWEWired, on our Facebook page ‘Bristol Wired’ or by simply commenting below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.