After simmering through the heats, this regatta is reaching a scalding boil. In qualifying, boats have been exchanging positions with painful reluctance, if at all, but today a home crew played a stirring role in the finish of the week so far.
In getting as close as they did, admittedly, the men of the lightweight four initially struggled to separate pride and despair. Neutrals, however, would urge them not only to treasure their silver medals, but also to acknowledge a significant breakthrough for their sport. For the oarsmen who thwarted them so narrowly were the first to win gold for South Africa – including, at stroke, a pioneer for the black community in Sizwe Ndlovu.
And what, after all, might the Australian and Danish give for that silver, as testimony to their own contribution to a four-way, half-length shoot-out that was exhausting merely to watch? The Danes had thrown down the gauntlet, opening up by a length on Australia at halfway, and the British took time to find top gear. Closing to third, they had an overlap at 1,500 metres, but it was the Australians who had all but drawn level. The Danes bravely broke that challenge, but lost their rhythm in the process – enabling the British, inspired by the patriotic tumult, to make rapid gains on their other side. And here came South Africa, fast and late. It was anybody’s race. The home crew nosed past the Danish stern yards from the finish, only to find that the lead had already changed hands, moments before. Three boats flashed over the line within a canvas, leaving the Australians somehow bereft.
Perhaps even the latter, however, would not begrudge bronze for the Danish veteran, Eskild Ebbesen – a sixth Olympic medal, in his final race. And the British soon stifled aggrieved mutterings that they had been most exposed to the crosswind. Chris Bartley threw up repeatedly. Gradually, however, they retrieved their bearings.
The odyssey of Northern Ireland brothers Richard and Peter Chambers has been one of the stories of the week, and now they had become the first brothers in the UK to win a medal since Greg and Jonny Searle, fellow oarsmen, shared bronze at Atlanta in 1996. And, even if blood is thicker, water has been a gratifying medium for consanguinity of another kind, with Bartley and Rob Williams.
Richard Chambers was quick to recognise second, in such a race, as an ample honour. “Whatever medal we won, it was going to be hard to celebrate,” the Ulsterman explained. “We were in absolute agony. We had to dig in and fight to the death. But we’re ecstatic. It’s definitely a day to celebrate. And massive credit to our competition.”
He told BBC1: "We were just fighting and fighting just to get ourselves back in contention and we did a cracking job. To even get the silver was impressive from where we came from.
Bartley still felt groggy at the press conference a couple of hours later. “I don’t remember much of the last 250, to be honest,” he said. “We were so determined to make that podium, you’ll literally do anything to get there. The pain is so extreme, there’s nothing to compare with it unless you give it a try. So, yeah, give it a go.”
His grinning invitation seemed unlikely to find many takers, there and then, but the overall momentum of the British sport must now serve as an inspiration in Ndlovu’s homeland. “There are around 20 black South Africans for every 100 whites in rowing,” he said. “So I’m excited about what we have achieved today, and hope I can serve as a role model back home. Rowing’s more expensive than other sports, so black kids tend to get drawn towards rugby and soccer. Hopefully this will inspire a generation to take it up. It’s got to be good for our rowing community.”
The 29-year-old discovered the sport at high school in Johannesburg, but training facilities since have hardly matched the Lottery lagoons of the runners-up. “We have hippos and crocs,” he said. “One time, we passed the hippos and on the way back one popped up four metres from the boat. So we stopped and our coach took pictures, it was like a safari extreme.”
Not that the hosts themselves have experienced anything quite like this week. “It’s amazing, 25,000 or 30,000 people cheering for four midgets in a boat,” Richard Chambers marvelled. “What have we done to deserve that?” It is hard to see how this true band of brothers might have done any more.