History of rowing
Since humans are naturally competitive, it’s easy to imagine that rowing as a sport appeared as soon as we mastered the boat and paddle. Expectedly, the first mention of competitive rowing comes from ancient Egypt. A funerary inscription dated 1430 BC notes that the pharaoh Amenophis II was a very successful oarsman, who won a series of races against rival Egyptian nobles. In the Roman epic the Aeneid, Virgil mentions rowing as part of the games organized by Aeneas for the funeral of his father.
The term “regatta,” used for rowing competitions to the present day, dates as far back as the middle ages, when aquatically themed festivals called regatta were held in Venice. (The second ‘t’ was added much later in keeping with modern Italian grammar). These featured both single rowers and teams, racing through the canals and waterways of the city. It is at one of these festivals that the first women’s boat race, held between teams of local peasant girls, was first recorded by the famous humanist Beatrice d’Este in 1493.
Around the same period the “Lord Mayor’s Water Procession” was being held in London and also featured a boat race with prizes being awarded by the local guilds. We have records of this going back as far as 1454, but there are reasons to believe rowing competitions were a part of English sporting tradition long before that.
Reaching its height in popularity during the civic-minded 19th century, there are few sports that can be said to have been as influential in the development of modern sporting institutions throughout the English speaking world as rowing has.
The oldest surviving boat race, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, is still held annually between London Bridge and Chelsea since its inauguration in 1715. Most English rowing clubs date back from the end of the same century, with the Monarch Boat Club of Eton College and the Isis Club of Westminster School* being both on record in the 1790s. The oldest non-collegiate clubs, the Star Club and Arrow Club in London date from around the same period.
The oldest races within England’s famous universities were first organized in 1815 at Oxford and 1827 at Cambridge, while the famous race between the two is held from 1829 onwards, with only short interludes owing to the two world wars. The Oxford-Cambridge boat race is the second oldest intercollegiate sporting event on British soil (or, more accurately, water), coming just two years shy of the Varsity Cricket Match of 1827. The nearby town of Henley was influenced to hold its own regatta starting in 1839.
For better or worse, considering all the damage college football has done to our higher educational institutions, both in diminishing the quality of the student body and in obliging college administrators to prioritize non-academic endeavors, the tradition of college athletics in the US first begun with the elegant sport of rowing.
There isn’t any sort of doubt that the young, bright men that first took part in the Yale – Harvard boating challenge of 1852 were staying well away from activities such as drunken brawling or rape (sadly ubiquitous enough with today’s low SAT score “athletes” as to require covering up by their coaches) but this event proved popular enough to make US college sports into an institution. The regatta continued to be held every year since, except during the War Between the States and World War II, even managing to surpass football in popularity for a while.
This was far from being the first rowing competition in the US, however, since our country’s eastern harbors, Boston, New York and Philadelphia provided ample ground for such events to be held, mirroring similar prize races popular in Great Britain at the time. The first such independent competition was recorded in New York in 1756, with the oldest rowing club still active today being the Narragansett, formed in Providence in 1838.
In continental Europe, it took a little more time for rowing clubs to get organised, but by 1892 the sport was prevalent enough for FISA, or Federation Internationale des Societes d’Aviron (International Federation of Rowing Associations) to be founded in Turin by representatives from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and the short-lived Italian principality of Adriatica. To date, this is the oldest international sporting federation to take part in the Olympic movement, having signed on for the first modern Olympic games held in Athens in 1896.
Olympic rowing races weren’t held until 1900, however, as bad weather kept the boats and oarsmen off the water during the earlier edition. European championships were first organized in 1893, but an annual World Rowing Championship was introduced fairly late, in 1962.
The list of nations with the best track records in international rowing feature the three that arguably enjoy the strongest traditions, meaning Great Britain, the United States of America and Italy, but also France, the Netherlands, Romania, Canada, Germany, New Zeeland and Australia. In women’s rowing, the best results are generally achieved by former Eastern Bloc nations, such as Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria.
Considering that competitive rowing requires a high upper body strength to body weight ratio, it is highly doubtful that East Asian nations, such as China or Japan will be able to make their way to the top (as it seems to be the case with other sports recently) due to a lack in the recruiting pool available.
Note: the link between the name and the ancient Egyptian roots of the sport is probably just a fortunate coincidence since translations from hieroglyphs weren’t available at the time