How to Watch Rowing in the Olympics
Attention… beep! The countdown begins for watching the biggest world stage for rowing, the Olympics. It’s been a circuitous journey for this year’s athletes due to COVID, but we’re excited to celebrate Tokyo 2020 with racing that begins on July 22, 2021. (The televised and online schedule of broadcasted events for the US is below.)
Rowing has been included in the Olympic Games since 1900 and (fun fact!) is the only sport where athletes cross the finish line backwards. This year’s Olympics is also a milestone for gender equity: it’s the first for equal participation of men and women, with seven boat classes each: single (1x), double (2x), lightweight double (2x), pair (2-), quad (4x), four (4-) and eight (8+). Singles, doubles, lightweight doubles, and quads are all sculling events (“x” in shorthand), where each athlete rows with an oar in each hand. In the sweep events (pair, four, eight) each athlete has only one oar—port or starboard. An additional team member, the coxswain (denoted as “+” in shorthand), steers and commands the crews in the eight event. The lightweight event is for women and men who meet weight criteria: individual women weigh no more than 59 kg (130 lb) and the crew must average no more than 57 kg (126 lb). For men, these weights are 72.5 kg (160 lb) for individuals and 70 kg (155 lb) for the boat average.
Boats race side-by-side in six lanes over 2000 meters. Each country has a unique uniform and oar blade design to help identify the country. In addition to cheering on our favorite countries and crews, Concept2 is also always cheering on “Team Green”: Concept2 oars are recognizable by the lime green-colored sleeve where the oar fits into the oarlock. We’re proud and honored that so many top performing crews choose to row with Concept2 equipment. Each green-sleeved oar you see in competition has been hand-built by our team here in Morrisville, Vermont. Athletes choose the specs and components of their oars for optimal performance: as you watch the regatta, you’ll see a variety of blade shapes, shaft construction types and grips used by these athletes on the course.
Our newest oar design, the Comp, was introduced in 2019 and so will be making its Olympic debut this year. Two of the teams using it will be the Romanian women's double and the French men's double. Both crews have a shot at gold, and we'll be watching them closely. We'll also be cheering on Franck-Aime of Ivory Coast as he celebrates his father's legacy. There are so many great stories behind the athletes who will be on the starting line.
To row in the Olympics, each country and crew has excelled at qualifying events throughout the world. In Tokyo, boats will compete in a series of heats, repechages and semi-finals over multiple days as they progress toward the finals. "Repechage" essentially means "second chance". If a crew does not do well enough in their heat to progress to the next race, they race in the Repechage for a second chance. The schedule is rigorous; athletes can expect to compete several times in the competition week. (Rest and recovery is an important part of managing a top performance!) The A final is where the medals are contended and features the top six best crews in each event; but there will also be B, C, D... finals so that every crew has that last chance to have their best race.
At the start, referees announce each crew as they’re lined up on the “stake boats”—which are no longer boats, but starting docks where the boats are held into the starting position, and carefully aligned. A green light and an audible horn indicate the start of the race (Since light travels faster than sound, the athletes watch the starting light very closely.)
Look for short quick strokes at the start, as athletes get their boats up to speed. Once the boats are off, athletes aim to stay long and strong. Strong crews often make rowing look effortless, relaxed and smooth even though they’re working very hard to row the best, most exhausting, race of their lives.
The distance between boats is often measured in “boat lengths” to indicate relative position. Since athletes face backwards, they usually have a clear view of the competition behind them--but less sense of what's going on ahead of them. This adds an interesting mental challenge to on-water racing.
If they’re able, athletes will increase their stroke rate (the number of strokes per minute) in a final sprint at the end of the race. Athletes who can do this without losing their composure and technique are often able to find additional speed. The lane buoys change to a red color in the last 250 meters, signaling that it is time to sprint to the finish. Those last 30 strokes or so can make all the difference in making the podium. Passing over a bubble line at the finish, the athletes often collapse in victory or defeat, sometimes in a photo finish! A sophisticated timing system is used to measure exact speed down to the tenths of a second.
We hope you’ll join us cheering on your favorite countries and athletes at this year’s Olympic Games.
*Concept2 recommended events to watch!
All times shown are in ET.
7:30 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Single, Pair, Double, more Heats
12 p.m., NBCSN: Rowing Heats Single, Double & More (replay)
7:30 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Four, Lwt Double, more Heats
5 a.m., USA Network: Rowing Heats, Repechages Single, Double Sculls
7:30 p.m. Available by streaming: M/W Eight & Single more Heats, Reps & Semis
11 p.m., CNBC: Rowing Heats Four, Lwt Double & More
7:30 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Single & Double, more QFs, Reps & Semis
12 a.m., USA Network: Rowing: Semifinals Double Sculls
12:15 p.m., NBCSN: Rowing Heats, Semifinals Men's, Women's Single, Double
*7:30 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Quadruple, more Semis & Finals
*7:30 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Four & Double, more Semis, Reps & Finals
2:30 p.m., USA Network: Rowing Finals Men's, Women's Quad, Double
*7:30 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Pair & Lwt Double, more Finals
*3 p.m., NBCSN: Rowing Finals Single, Double Sculls (replay)
*8 p.m., Available by streaming: M/W Eight & Single Finals