At 2am on the champagne-fuelled night in 2000 when Matthew Pinsent arrived from Sydney, where his coxless four had won Olympic gold in what the party’s host (and then Henley MP) Boris Johnson dubbed ‘the greatest British aquatic triumph since Trafalgar’, he felt an urgent tap on the shoulder.
It was the British team’s coach, Jürgen Gröbler, and he had an important message to share.
He didn’t want to say ‘well done!’ or ‘congratulations!’ or any of the usual platitudes that greet a famous victory.
Instead, he frowned slightly, shook his head and muttered: ‘Matt, we should have won by more.’
Gröbler, now 74, is a relentless taskmaster in the Alex Ferguson mould, who always wants and demands more from his athletes and is rarely, if ever, entirely happy
This single incident highlights everything you need to know about the extraordinary German who led the UK’s rowers to seven consecutive Olympics, from 1992-2016, producing 20 champions who won 33 gold medals, and turning our national team into the greatest force in the gruelling sport’s long history.
Gröbler, now 74, is a relentless taskmaster in the Alex Ferguson mould, who always wants and demands more from his athletes and is rarely, if ever, entirely happy.
His notorious training camps in Spain’s hot and remote Sierra Nevada region see rowers pushed to the limits of human endurance, working out until they vomit.
Athletes who under-perform are ruthlessly dropped. Team members must commit to rigorous regimes with little time off, even for holidays or family events. Nothing is ever allowed to get in the way of winning.
This singular devotion may not always be pretty, but it gets extraordinary results. It saw Britain take five rowing medals in Rio, six in Beijing, and nine at the London games, topping the Olympic regatta table each time. In pure sporting terms, it was a triumph.
Then, suddenly, he was gone.
Last August, in a shock announcement, it was revealed that the world’s most famous rowing coach had parted company with his employer – in mysterious circumstances – and would not be running the British team as they prepared for the delayed 2021 games in Tokyo.
Eleven months later and, well, we all now know how that worked out.
Despite being the world’s best-funded team, which has chewed through nearly £25million in the last Olympic cycle, the Gröbler-less Brits have earned a paltry two medals, neither of which is gold.
A string of near-misses (we had six boats in fourth place) and silly mistakes (the coxless four’s bow man momentarily forgot to steer) contributed to Team GB’s worst rowing performance since they came home from Munich with nothing, some fifty years ago.
Those are the bare facts. Yet behind this sporting debacle lies a furious debate that now touches on one of the most contentious issues in sport.
It revolves around the following question: are highly-successful coaches who, like Gröbler, have a reputation for pursuing victory at almost any cost simultaneously placing an intolerable (and unacceptable) strain on the young athletes in their care?
The tension at the heart of this conflict became dramatically public this week when Josh Bugajski, one of the crew who won bronze in the men’s eight, told an interviewer that he’d ‘cracked open a bottle of champagne when Jürgen retired’.
‘I had a very dark three years under him,’ Bugajski continued. ‘I will admit, he’s a good coach to some people. But there were some people he just seemed to take a disliking to. What he did to them was just destroy them – destroy their soul, destroy everything they had.’
(Left to right) Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster, Steve Redgrave and James Cracknell of Great Britain win gold in the Mens Coxless Fours final during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games
Amid the fallout, it has been widely claimed that Gröbler had left after being eased aside as part of an initiative by Team GB to move towards a ‘more holistic’ approach to managing athletes, following bullying controversies in a number of sports. This has seen them adopt a somewhat lily-livered mantra: ‘Medals and more.’
To the likes of Gröbler, a perfectionist to whom anything but medals is a singular disaster, that slogan is an anathema. Realising this, his bosses seem to have engineered his departure.
Insiders say that when his pre-pandemic contract for the original Tokyo Olympics ran out last August, British Rowing refused to offer him a one-year extension that would keep him in the job for the rescheduled Games, but instead insisted they would only renew the employment deal if he committed to staying in the job until 2024.
‘Gröbler is 74, so is long past normal retirement age, and he wasn’t prepared to do that,’ says an informed source. ‘In other words, they pushed him out.’
The decision is said to have followed a handful of complaints about Gröbler’s treatment of athletes (though none were formally escalated).
When asked about the rationale for it, Andy Anson, the chief executive of the British Olympic Association, said: ‘They’re trying to change the culture of that sport. It’s quite a hardcore culture and [they are] trying to transition to something where the athletes are getting more support.’
Anson added that we ‘shouldn’t worry’ about the medal haul, in a week where the mental health of Olympians has sparked widespread soul-searching following the high-profile withdrawal of American gymnast Simone Biles, who quit the team events citing stress, and the recent travails of Naomi Osaka, who was knocked out in the third round of the tennis having missed Wimbledon due to emotional struggles.
Yet his remarks have got short shrift from several leading rowers, who regard Gröbler’s methods as being instrumental in their own success.
Put simply, they take the view that dealing with extreme pressure is the very essence of elite sport and worry that wokery and wimpiness is replacing a culture of excellence.
‘If we want a soft approach, we will have to expect softer results,’ was the stern verdict of Sir Steve Redgrave, who the German coached to three of his five medals.
Redgrave is particularly critical of a decision to change the way teams are selected, following Gröbler’s departure. Previously, the somewhat autocratic coach alone had the final say; now it is organised by committee.
‘With the systems that we have put back in of selection panels and so forth, we’ve moved back to the 70s and 80s, and we have to accept 70s and 80s results,’ he said.
James Cracknell argued that the timing of his departure smacked of incompetence: ‘Why would you shed that level of medal-winning experience the year before an Olympics already shrouded by so much uncertainty? It seemed crazy to let a man with that level of expertise walk out of the building.’
Oliver Cook, Matthew Rossiter, Rory Gibbs and Sholto Carnegie of Team Great Britain react after coming in fourth during the Men’s Four Final A on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Moe Sbihi, who won gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics and was one of the flag bearers for this year’s event, told reporters: ‘He’s a winner. He’s a notorious winner, he has bred winners. Jürgen knew how to elevate people.’
Sources on the ground in Tokyo also say that the departure of Gröbler, an old-school coach who honed his craft in Cold War East Germany, has led to a sea change in coaching methods.
‘He’s an old-school guy, who relied on gut instinct rather than sports science and preferred to use his eyes and maybe a stopwatch to tell him what was going on,’ says one. ‘The new guard are all about data and analytics, rather than instinct, and on the current evidence it doesn’t work.’
Be that as it may, the team that failed so spectacularly has now been given £22.7million to sort things out for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Then, and only then, will we know for sure whether taking a softer approach to this most gruelling of sports really will lead to soft results.