Bitter words as British Rowing launches inquest after Olympics flop

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Tokyo (AFP)

British rower Josh Bugajski accused former chief rowing coach Juergen Grobler of "destroying" athletes as a searching inquest began Friday into the nation's disastrous showing at the Olympics regatta.

Britain's rowers mustered just one silver and one bronze at Tokyo's Sea Forest Waterway -- their worst showing at an Olympics since 1972, when they failed to win a medal.

German coach Grobler stepped down in 2020 after 28 years with British Rowing, during which time he coached a succession of gold medallists including Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent.

The timing of his departure has been blamed for Britain's shocking showing in Tokyo, though team chiefs also pointed to multiple changes in team personnel since the Rio Games, where they topped the table for the third successive Olympics.

Bugajski, who won a bronze in the blue riband men's eight on the final day of the regatta on Friday, poured out his frustrations after the race.

The 30-year-old admitted that Grobler had strengths as a coach but delivered a withering verdict on his approach.

"I will admit he is a good coach for some people but there were some people he seemed to take a disliking too and what he did to them was just destroy them, destroy their soul, destroy everything," he said.

"He had complete power. If you don't get selected for a boat your funding is never going to go up. I was pretty much broke for a year or so.

"My relationship suffered, my friendships suffered. Everything suffered. I'm very thankful to have a wonderful fiancee, a wonderful family back home who have looked after me whenever they can."

Despite the frustrations in Tokyo, Bugajski said there were reasons to be positive for the future.

"I think it's the end of an era for British rowing but it's the start of a much better era," he said. "We've had six boats come fourth, on the cusp of a medal, and we've had two medals.

"I think for Paris (2024) we have a lot of potential so I think we need to be honest about where it went wrong," he added

"There's a lot of speculation about whether Juergen's leaving was what caused the issues. I think the issues had started long before that."

British five-time gold medallist Redgrave, now China's high performance director, criticised the team's selection methods.

"If you bring in systems and selection panels like we had in the 1970s and 80s you must expect results that we had in the 70s and 80s," he said, without elaborating.

- Team GB funding -

The performance in Tokyo was a shocking return for a sport that received funding of £24.6 million ($34 million) from UK Sport in the 2017-2021 period.

Moe Sbihi, who won a bronze in the men's eight to go with his gold in the men's coxless four in Rio and bronze in the eight at London 2012, acknowledged the team had underperformed in Japan.

"A silver and a bronze for quite a highly funded sport in Team GB, we should be doing better," he said.

But he had words of praise for Grobler -- laying bare differences of opinion within the team over the legacy of the former coach.

"He is a winner, he's a notorious winner," said Sbihi, who said he was still in contact with the German. "He's bred winners but we have a winner in our own coach."

"I spoke to him briefly this week just to say thank you to him," he added. "Most of the guys feel very grateful for the legacy that he has put in place."

Brendan Purcell, British Rowing’s performance director, said the team had fallen short of its four-medal target, admitting "we didn't meet our own expectations".

He said some rowers had thrived in the culture established under Grobler while others had struggled, promising a searching review.

"The reality is a performance environment needs to achieve exceptional performances and for people to explore their limits there needs a balance between support and challenge and for every individual that's a difficult mix to find," he said.

"Some people thrive constantly on challenge 24 hours a day, some people don't. I suppose it is one of the things we have to get a bit better at. I think sometimes we didn't get that balance quite right."