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Rowing at the 2012 London Summer Olympics

The moment that humans began putting oars to water to propel their boats, the sport of Olympic rowing was born. Archeological artifacts indicate rowing contests were common in ancient Egypt, and champion oarsmen were revered and honored.

The more modern, organized version of rowing as a sport developed along the River Thames in the 1700s. The oldest public rowing club still in operation is England’s Leander Club, founded in 1818. Rowing became very popular among British university teams in the mid-1800s, with schools such as Cambridge and Oxford building fierce rivalries that are still alive and well today.

Rowing debuted as an Olympic sport at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris and has been a part of every Summer Olympics since then.

Olympic rowing basics

There are many different types of rowing competitions throughout the world, but official Olympic rowing is conducted in the standard, side-by-side lanes racing format. The winner of a race is the athlete or team (usually called a crew) whose boat crosses the finish line first.

Here’s what you can expect to see:

  1. Rowing competitions can be conducted on nearly any body of water (ocean, river, lake, or man-made reservoir) that has adequate space for the type of race. There are two basic types of Olympic rowing competitions:

    • Sculling: Sculling races are typically between individual athletes or a crew of two or four scullers. In crew events, the scullers are lined up one behind the other in the long, narrow boat. Each rower has one oar in each hand that extend out from either side of the boat.

    • Sweeping: Sweeping races are generally contested with pairs of two, four, or eight crew, with the pairs seated side by side in rows. Each rower uses both hands on the same oar, and rows only on one side of the boat.

  2. In both types, the rowers are seated facing the rear of the boat; they move the oars in an elliptical motion so the tips enter the water near the back (stern) of the boat and pull toward the front (bow).

    This motion literally pushes the boat across the surface of the water.

  3. In sweep races, an additional team member called a coxswain (cox) sits at the stern and helps to steer and direct the crew, since the rowers cannot see the path ahead of them.

    Rowing is, in fact, the only sport in which competitors cross the finish line facing backward — intentionally, anyway!

Regardless of the format, a crew must work in precise, coordinated motion to provide a strong, powerful, stroking pattern that propels the boat forward with amazing speed. Successful rowing athletes have significant upper body strength and exceptional cardiovascular endurance. Greater height and extended arm reach provide a competitive advantage as well.

Olympic lightweight rowing events

A special type of rowing race is a lightweight event. Lightweight races limit the weight of both each individual athlete as well as the team. The boats used in lightweight events are also not as heavy as those used in other races. This makes for some lightning-fast speeds and some very exciting thrills for spectators.

In Olympic men’s lightweight rowing, each rower may weigh no more than 72.5 kilograms, and the average weight of the full crew cannot be greater than 70 kilograms. For women, a single rower’s maximum weight is 59 kilograms, and the average weight of the team cannot exceed 57 kilograms.

Olympic rowing medal competition

Rowing events at the 2012 London Summer Olympics will be held July 28-August 4 at Eton Dorney in Buckinghamshire, about 25 miles northwest of London, near the River Thames where it all began. Olympic rowing races at Dorney Lake are 2,000 meters long, and the course has eight racing lanes.

In the Summer Olympics, there are 14 medal events:

  • Men's Single Sculls

  • Men's Pair

  • Men's Double Sculls

  • Men's Lightweight Double Sculls

  • Men's Four

  • Men's Quadruple Sculls

  • Men's Lightweight Four

  • Men's Eight

  • Women's Single Sculls

  • Women's Pair

  • Women's Double Sculls

  • Women's Lightweight Double Sculls

  • Women's Quadruple Sculls

  • Women's Eight

Each medal event includes a series of qualifying races (called a repechage), a semifinal round, and ultimately the final race for the gold.

Each country may enter a total of 28 male and 20 female athletes. A total of 550 athletes will compete in London (353 men and 197 women).

Find out more about Olympic rowing at the website of the International Rowing Federation (FISA), the sport’s international governing body.

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