Sir Steve Redgrave on rowing, app – and Lance

Sir Steve Redgrave had an Apple rowing app to promote on 12 December 2012, and GLUE editor Zarina Holmes was asked by the Malaysian rowing community to photograph the Olympian and send their regards to him. I took the opportunity to dash off work and ran to the Apple Store on Regent Street to see the great man in my cycling jersey and beanie hat.

Sir Steve Redgrave
Sir Steve Redgrave and The Telegraph Olympics editor, Jaquelin Magnay at Apple Store, Regent Street. Photo © Zarina Holmes / GLUE

He was at Apple to push the iOS app for his rowing game, River Adventures, published by Appshen Limited. The free app, available for iPhone and iPad, works as a soft marketing tool that works a bit like that iStethoscope Pro app invented by this scientist at my old uni, Dr Peter J Bentley. Bentley created it to push his book (so he told us). River Adventures was created to market Sir Steve’s rowing endeavours.

That Lance question

Many rowers are also cyclists, and it is not uncommon to see athletes – amateur or professional – swapping sports, or at least training regimes, according to seasons. So when the Telegraph Media Group Olympics editor, Jaquelin Magnay, who chaired the event asked Sir Steve about Lance Armstrong, it wasn’t exactly a question that was out of place with the rowing audience – although I did think Sir Steve was not obliged to comment on that. He was only supposed to push the app.

“Lance Armstrong shouldn’t keep his Olympic medal,” he replied.

“It’s a grey area,” he reflected, “He didn’t do things by the book, but he came from an era where cycling was not as clean as it seemed. So (the cycling bodies) shouldn’t penalise one person only.”

And then the topic changed, and I was glad for that, for I like both Sir Steve – and Lance Armstrong. I’m a cancer survivor. I survived it and I survived my brother not making it past his cancer. I’d rather not judge. (Editor’s note: GLUE attended David Walsh’s Sunday Times talk on Lance Armstrong, so read on to gain a ‘wider perspective’ on the issue).

Photo © Zarina Holmes / GLUE
Sir Steve Redgrave’s five Olympics gold medal record was broken by Sir Chris Hoy at London 2012 with six gold medals. Photo © Zarina Holmes / GLUE

Rowing in Asia

At the heart of Sir Steve’s presence that evening was the campaign to promote rowing not only to the British public, but also – and especially – to those in the British Commonwealth, in particular, the Asian regions. Sea sports are not new to Asia. Boating in some parts of the world is not so much a leisure thing as it is a ‘necessity’. But English rowing is a relatively new phenomenon.

He spoke about India and Sri Lanka, and the efforts that Indian and Sri Lankan rowing made in focusing on building its popularity at home before moving on to competing at regional or international level.

The key to popularising rowing in Asia is to make it more socially inclusive. Sir Steve spoke of efforts done in the UK such as the introduction of sprint regattas. I must say he really got his work cut out there because unlike cycling, rowing – not only due to its very technical and physically demanding nature – is not a ‘common denominator’. Not everyone has access to rowing facilities, not everyone has the right habitus such as education and social background to gain access to it, and not everyone likes waking up at 6 am at weekends for a 7 am paddle.

Social inclusion

As for making rowing socially inclusive, well. Once, at Hammersmith, when I faced difficulty docking my bowloader against the tide, I yelled at two council estate kids and their mom, who was obviously under the influence, for their help pulling our blades in. I had no choice. They were the only ones hanging about on the pontoon. They helped; the little boys then yelped with delight: “This is fun”. I thanked them. Then my coach emerged and told them curtly, “Thanks, but we can take it from here”. Cue: Buzz off. The mother quickly dragged the kids away, but not without saying: “When I was young, I used to do track sports”.

My heart sank.

I recounted this experience to my fellow anthropologists over drinks at the Anthropology Day in London 2012 last summer. One lady, a West Africanist scholar from a Belgian university, was perturbed. Look, I love rowing, but my time doing fieldwork in Brixton researching on anti-social behaviours and class divisions convinces me that cycling has a better chance than rowing in being ‘socially inclusive’ as a community sport. At varsity level, rowing has a better chance, as Sir Steve pointed out in his talk.

Photo © Zarina Holmes / GLUE
Photo © Zarina Holmes / GLUE

But that’s why we have the rowing app

To make mince meat out of Taussig’s theory, perhaps mimicry is better than nothing. Perhaps a simulation of rowing – on one’s iPhone – could convince more young people and parents across the spectrum to embrace the idea of rowing without all that social hang-ups. In that respect, I really hope this app takes off. We conveyed to Sir Steve that English rowing has been growing slowly in our native country, Malaysia, since the 90s, and that the Head Coach of Rowing at University Teknologi Malaysia, Abdul Halim Aziz – also Holmes’s former classmate – is a huge fan of his.

I was rather shy to speak to Sir Steve. In fact, I was planning to scoot off quietly, but his manager insisted that I should say hello to him. To my embarrassment, he said to Sir Steve: “She’s a coxswain”. I have long tried to lose that social identity for some time, choosing to run and cycle to keep myself active. But that’s the thing about rowing: once you’re in, you can’t escape it.

I mentioned the clubs that I coxed, and he said, “Oh, Tideway”. Like him, I didn’t start at some fancy university. I did it the commoner’s way, starting with the local river behind our street. It was, ironically, the cheapest sport I could afford to do back then. All you have to do is leave the hang-ups behind, wake up early and get in a boat.

Salina Christmas did MSc Digital Anthropology at UCL. Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes On The Balinese Cockfight”, a reading featured in her Anthropology of Games and Simulation module, inspired her to go into mobile games and online gaming as a career.

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