Steve Redgrave: Rowing seen as ‘very elite, very white’ | Can the sport change?

Britain’s most successful rower Steve Redgrave says rowing is still seen as “very elitist, very white sport” as it works to change its perception.

Triple Olympic champion Andy Triggs Hodge is leading efforts to revolutionize the sport’s culture and make it more accessible to a new generation of youngsters. Can rowing move on from its history and become truly diverse and inclusive?

Sky Sports News spoke to Redgrave, Triggs Hodge and acclaimed documentary star Arshay Cooper at the National Junior Indoor Rowing Championship (NJIRC) in East London about why rowing is in urgent need of change.

Triggs Hodge won three Olympic gold medals in 2008, 2012, and 2016 and decided to stay involved in rowing to give back what he has gained from the sport. Rather than follow more traditional post-Olympic careers, he wanted to take rowing to a new generation and has been trying to deliver his vision working for the charity London Youth Rowing (LYR).

Triggs Hodge celebrates after his London 2012 triumph.  He now dedicates his energy to help make rowing a more inclusive and welcoming environment.

Triggs Hodge celebrates after his London 2012 triumph. He now dedicates his energy to help make rowing a more inclusive and welcoming environment.

“London Youth Rowing is a charity that supports communities that wouldn’t normally have the opportunities to get into rowing,” said Triggs Hodge. The organization hosts the highly anticipated NJIRC every year at the CopperBox Arena along with, for the first time, a sister event at the John Charles Center in Leeds.

Filled with lively music, raucous cheering, and an abundance of energy, the NJIRC is one of the most inclusive events on the rowing calendar. This year there were over 2000 young people from different backgrounds across England participating, including an equal mix of gender and those with disabilities.

A bustling Copperbox Arena hosts the National Junior Indoor Rowing Championship (NJIRC).

A bustling Copperbox Arena hosts the National Junior Indoor Rowing Championship (NJIRC).

According to Triggs Hodge, the event helps those who would otherwise “feel alien and not welcome” connect with the sport. “We break those barriers, we smash them to pieces. We get them on the rowing machines, and we just have a great time,” he added. He believes initiatives like the NJIRC are vital for a sport that is “way too far behind in becoming culturally diverse”.

Redgrave agrees, telling Sky Sports News”we need as a sport to widen up as much as we can“.

The sport is more diverse than it first looks but we still need to improve,” the five-time Olympic gold medalist said.

Rowing’s diversity problem

So why has rowing always been associated with a lack of diversity? According to Triggs Hodge, attending as director of engagement and events at LYR, “the biggest barriers to rowing is cost but also culture”.

Sky Sports News Research found that junior memberships for rowing clubs located along the Thames Region cost, on average, £340 per year. These clubs can also be inaccessible, with many tied to private clubs or schools. Only 40 of the 81 clubs are currently accepting applications from the public.

“The charity can help with the cost,” he tells Sky Sports News. But he also stresses the importance in changing the culture of clubs and making them reflect the communities they are based in.

“All our coaches are hired from the communities we work in, they look like, they sound like the people we are trying to connect with,” he added. “Once you overcome those barriers, then you allow the kids to have that interaction and put their energy into it, and they rebuild the sport.”

The BMX of Rowing

Triggs Hodge also wants to appeal to wider audiences and emulate other sports, giving cycling as an example. The 44-year-old, who also won eight World Championship medals, said: “If the rowing world is track cycling there isn’t a BMX until we turn up with this.”

Unlike its outdoor equivalent, indoor rowing is a modern variation of the sport that replaces the traditional boats and oars with rowing machines resembling those commonly found in gyms. These machines are equipped with large digital screens that allow competitors to visualize their position in the race relative to their opponents, creating a simulation of an actual rowing competition.

Competitors locked in an intense battle.  Indoor rowing is helping broaden the sport's appeal.

Competitors locked in an intense battle. Indoor rowing is helping broaden the sport’s appeal.

The event forms part of LYR’s wider strategy to diversify the sport and make it accessible to a wider group of people. Rowing has developed an image as an elitist, predominantly white sport; a viewpoint reinforced by its strong diversity statistics. According to British Rowing’s 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Survey only six per cent of its members originate from ethnically diverse backgrounds, while just 10 per cent are from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Redgrave says the NJIRC is one of “the prime events of inclusion” that is helping change the sport. Indoor rowing removes some of the obstacles that curtail participation among less represented groups, for example removing the need for river access and boat storage.

“You can put rowing machines in schools, wherever they are in the country,” says Redgrave, which facilitates the inclusion of people “from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and getting them engaged in the sport”.

The British rowing icon praised the event as a “fantastic” way for “getting different people who would never have the opportunity – financially and schooling-wise – and seeing what the sport actually does”.

How sport can help young kids be successful

What are the benefits of young people rowing? Triggs Hodge is keen to emphasize that this is not about only finding elite rowers. The world record holder said: “Our aim is to give young people the ability to find their success in life, and sport is such an important catalyst for that.”

He believes that sport equips people with fundamental life skills, adding: “You can see the impact it changes on their personality when we take a young person who was shy, reserved, withdrawn and then when they leave the program, they’re dynamic, they’re progressive and they’re problem solvers.”

Redgrave, who won his fifth Olympic gold at Sydney in 2020, says that he teaches kids the importance of teamwork and how to “deal with success and failure”.

Redgrave (first from left) pictured winning gold at Sydney 2020. Embracing teamwork helped secure his iconic sporting status.

Redgrave (first from left) pictured winning gold at Sydney 2020. Embracing teamwork helped secure his iconic sporting status.

Being a niche sport, rowing can appeal to those who may not be as interested in more mainstream sports such as football and rugby. “Sport is such an important part of a young person’s development and no one should feel like there isn’t a sport for them because there is, there absolutely is, they just haven’t found it yet,” said Triggs Hodge.

From gang member to documentary star

Arshay Cooper is a black rower who has experienced these benefits first-hand. Growing up in West Chicago surrounded by violence, learning to row became a transformative experience for him. His inspirational story – breaking free from a gang to become captain of the first African American rowing team – was made into a documentary called A Most Beautiful Thing.

Hey told Sky Sports News why rowing is so special to him: “In this sport there are no cheerleaders, there are no busload of fans, there are no pep rallies, there are no million-dollar contracts after college. But what you will find is a brotherhood and a sisterhood of people who will rip apart their hands, break their backs, for themselves, the person who sits in front of them and person who sits behind them.”

Rowing helped turn Arshay Cooper's (third from left) life around.

Rowing helped turn Arshay Cooper’s (third from left) life around.

Cooper is convinced he will see more trailblazers follow in his footsteps. He said: “There’s so much history that hasn’t been made for people who look like me, and who are Asian, who are Indian, and so when they make history and break those barriers, there’s going to be many more after them that are going to want to be a part of it.”

Are initiative like London Youth Rowing helping realize Arshay’s stirring vision for the sport? The evidence suggests they are, with 57 per cent of their members are from ethnically diverse backgrounds, a sign that inclusion is possible. LYR has “definitely increased the sport’s visibility and accessibility,” a defiant Triggs Hodge told Sky Sports News.

Whether this will translate beyond the charity to the sports nationwide demographics remains to be seen, but an encourage start has been made to reshaping the sport into a more vibrant and inclusive image. Triggs Hodge, emphasizing their commitment to change, said “we will work hard day in, day out”.

If you want to get involved in rowing, head to British Rowing’s activity finder: Click here for more information on the work done by London Youth Rowing.