15 August 2004

The coxless four hold on to win their heat in the fastest time as they put the disruptions behind them

Now it’s for real. The oars of Matthew Pinsent and his crew bit the waters of Lake Schinias at exactly 12 noon local time and the most discussed four men in a boat for many years finally put themselves to the big racing test. Six minutes and 20 seconds later they had come up with a winning, but not wholly convincing, answer.

“I would give it six or seven out of 10,” Pinsent said of the half-length, 1.73sec victory over the Italians with the Slovenians a close third. “We made a good start but in the second half we settled to our level, not to the level we would aim for. It’s all a new experience for us to race together and over 2,000 metres you are bound to make mistakes. Quite honestly, after the summer we have had I would be happy to win a one-on-one with Zululand,” he said.

Fresh out of the water and still breathing hard, Pinsent, Cracknell, Coode and Williams were like some strange sweating beasts from the deep. They had just been in a capsule of precision, pleasure and pain, their ability to bend their bodies over the oars and within the craft a perfect harmony of mind and muscle. Then they have to get on to land and explain it. The Slovenians took the easy route . . . they jumped in for a swim.

What matters in this quest for what could be Pinsent’s fourth and Cracknell’s second gold medal is what happens on the water. A three-part television series could be written on the controversial saga of how Pinsent and Cracknell have been forced to change boats and partners with almost indecent frequency. How, in February, coach Jurgen Grobler ended their original plan to tackle the Olympics as a pair and put them back in the four, removing the luckless Rick Dunn and Tony Garbett into the smaller craft. Of how Ed Coode only came to join Pinsent, Cracknell and Steve Williams six weeks ago after the injury to Alex Partridge. That’s enough episodes, thank you.

For Pinsent, too, there is the need to scupper the suggestion that what is really lacking is the man standing with a TV microphone under an umbrella on the shore. He has to rid himself of the Steve Redgrave effect. When the first 10 strokes took the four a good canvas up on the Slovenians beside them the belief could live. When they were a full length and 2.66sec up on the Slovenians after 500 metres, it positively blossomed under the scorching sun.

Then, not heat, but inexperience and the artistically named Italian stroke Raffaello Leonardo saw it wither quickly on the vine. Raffaello upped the tempo and the Italian boat came past the Slovenian one and ate swiftly into the British lead; at the 1,000 metre mark they were only a canvas, only 1.26secs down. Experienced observers spotted a lack of rhythm in Pinsent and his team. For sweltering well-wishers, doubt suddenly touched coldly on the spine.

But these men have not, albeit separately, been gold medallists for nothing. Tony Blair had been a welcome visitor in the changing tent beforehand but even the smoothest spin-doctor would not dare suggest that it was a ministerial pep-talk that now held the crew together. Watching a rowing race is a strange experience in any location; on Lake Schinias, quarried out of a disused airport beside the harsh scrub of the Bendele Hills, not six kilometres from the historic battlefield of Marathon itself, it is positively surreal.

Four quadrireme water beetles propel themselves towards us through the wickerwork of yellow buoys that mark the rowing lane. When you get to the final 500 metres the buoys, very suitably, are turned to red.

Pinsent in action is a harsh and driving sight. Behind him, Coode still keeps some poise as they cross the finish line, while Cracknell dips his head in fatigue, his heart as ever very high above the sleeve. Winning yesterday in the fastest time of the heats puts them through to Wednesday’s semi-final but no more than that. As he came heaving up towards us Pinsent was not leaving anyone in doubt.

First port of call was the television camera. Beside it stood Redgrave. They touched hands – no more. Redgrave can have views but he is only a watcher now. “People go on about me being or not being a leader,” Pinsent said later, with an uncharacteristic edge in his tone. “I don’t see it like that. There are four of us in this boat. Four of us and we are going to learn a lot from this.”

So, too, will the other British rowers in action, all of whom got to tomorrow’s repechages at least, Kath Bishop and Kathy Grainger some 6.9sec adrift of a rampant Belarus, and both the men’s double sculls and men’s pairs going direct to the semi-finals on Wednesday. The latter, of course, consists of the ex-four crew of Dunn and Garbett.

For them the trick is to manufacture determination from disappointment. “Of course we had a kick in the teeth,” said Dunn, “but we are going to give it a crack. I would much rather stand up to the challenge than walk away. We are here for the fight.”

In 490 BC the Persians said the same thing at the battle of Marathon before being defeated by the Athenians. Dunn and Garbett are likely to do a bit better than they did.

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