Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Former NZ Olympian stoked at return of the big boats in rowing at Rio

Alec McLean was part of the rowing eights at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Alec McLean was part of the rowing eights at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Former Olympic rowing medal winner Alec McLean is hoping the return of the New Zealand rowing eights to an Olympics final is the start of a new era for the big boats after years of the small boats taking the limelight.

McLean was in the rowing eights crew which won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

There has been a raft of medals in the small boats since then but 1976 was last time New Zealand made the dais in the eights, which is traditionally considered the premium rowing race.

No New Zealand men's crew has made the finals in the eights since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Instead much of the focus has been on the small boats, such as the single and double sculls and the pairs.

McLean said he was delighted to see the return of the big boats this year for both the men and women.

"There's just something about the eights that is really special. It's not the glamour event for no reason. It's the fastest boat, the sheer noise at the start of an eights race is amazing.

Then there's the speed the boat is going, the technical expertise required to get eight guys rowing together."

New Zealand are not favourites in the eights this year but McLean said the temperamental conditions at Rio could work in their favour because they had trained in choppy conditions at Lake Karapiro.

McLean said New Zealand's success in the singles, doubles and pairs justified the decision to focus on the smaller boats instead of the eights after the 1980s.

"A lot of people around the country were sad about that, but in hindsight you can't argue with the results. It's fantastic to see so many crews at an Olympic regatta now, and fantastic to see the eight back in an Olympic final after all these years."

He said in his era only East Germany had as many crews at the Olympics as New Zealand had this year.

McLean was the seven seat in the 1976 eight which won bronzes at the two Rowing World Champs before the Olympics. There was a lot of pressure on the crew given the 1972 crew had won gold in Munich.

McLean said he did not fully appreciate his bronze until the 1984 Los Angeles eight came fourth at the Olympics, despite winning at the Rowing World Championships leading up to it.

"When they came fourth, I suddenly though 'woah, I came away with a medal.' As we've seen from these Games, Olympic medals are really hard to win."

He says Wybo Veldman from the Munich 1972 crew was the rowing legend of his era "and in my mind he still is."

For the modern equivalent he points to the pairs crew of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, who won gold this year.

"They're just streaks ahead of anyone else. I don't know how they do it, especially because they're quite different physically as well. Eric's a great bug guy, Bondie is a little guy which is not usually a good combination for a pair."

His 1976 crew did not have anything like the high-performance sport funding or the facilities now on offer for rowing, which gets more government funding than any other sport - $20 million over the past four years.

McLean and his crewmates had to work as well as train and each crew member had to put in $1000 (about $11,700 today) to pay for the Olympics trip.

That was one third of his annual salary as a public servant. "How the self-employed guys did it, I have no idea. We had plumbers, builders with young families and no income for that time we were away."

The others in the 1976 eight were Tony Hurt, Ivan Sutherland, Trevor Coker, Peter Dignan, Lindsay Wilson, Athol Earl, Dave Rodger and cox Simon Dickie.

After working for former Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand, McLean now works for Labour MP David Shearer in Parliament.

- NZ Herald

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