Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Chairman gets his feet under the table

WITH less than a week to go before Henley Royal Regatta, its new chairman is keeping a cool head.

WITH less than a week to go before Henley Royal Regatta, its new chairman is keeping a cool head.

Sir Steve Redgrave, who was elected to the role in December, says all the preparations have kept on track despite the added complication that this year the racing is being filmed.

He says his committee is so efficient that the event “practically runs itself”. This allows him time to settle in after shadowing his predecessor Mike Sweeney for more than a year.

The 53-year-old former Great Britain rower, who holds five Olympic gold medals and nine world championship golds, was made one of the regatta’s 61 stewards in 1996.

He was the first person to be offered the position while still an active international athlete.

Three years later, a year before he retired, he was elected to the management committee. These are the 12 stewards who organise the competition each year. They “exercise control over all matters connected with the regatta”, although the wider body of stewards must approve any changes to the rules.

In December 2013, Mr Sweeney announced that he would step down after the 175th regatta the following summer. Sir Steve was elected vice-chairman the same month.

Mr Sweeney had been chairman for 22 years but had to retire as no one may serve on the committee beyond the age of 69.

Sir Steve says: “When a replacement was needed for Peter Coni, the previous chairman, it was a fairly hurried process because, sadly, he had fallen ill.

“This time everyone knew when Mike would be going so it meant there could be a longer handover. If he’d been retiring a few years earlier or later I wouldn’t have been interested but I felt I was at the perfect point in my life to take over. My children had grown up and I was free to give up my time as it’s a voluntary role.

“It was discussed with the committee and everybody felt it was a good idea and the right thing for the regatta. It is technically an annual position but as long as you don’t mess it up and still want to do it each year, you carry on.

“What really gave me the confidence to accept it is that each section of the regatta is so well organised. I’ve been joking that it’s going to take at least three or four years for me to mess it up, though hopefully that’ll prove to be no more than a light-hearted comment.”

Sir Steve, who lives in Marlow with his wife Ann and children Natalie, 24, Sophie, 21, and Zak, 17, said his aim this year was to change as little as possible.

He says: “I have some understanding of the different roles that are involved but to nowhere near the same extent as the people holding them. It would be hard for me to explain them to anybody else if we were to replace them.

“This role has taken over my life. I’ve had various business interests and sat on the board of the London 2012 Olympics but this has come closest to taking up as much time as my international rowing career. This is a seven-day-a-week job — I’m not physically here all the time but it is always on my mind.”

Sir Steve says the preparations have been “blessed” by the weather in the last few months. “Last year our grounds staff had problems because the grounds had been underwater for months due to flooding but this year they’re in pretty good shape,” he smiles.

This year’s event will be broadcast for the first time since 1976. It will be streamed live online and a daily highlights show will also be available.

Crews from video production company Sunset + Vine will set up 10 high-definition broadcast cameras along the Buckinghamshire bank of the Thames and on a new platform next to the signal box at the finishing line.

The regatta was last broadcast live by the BBC in 1968 and television highlights were last aired by ITV in 1976.

A live feed will be shown on screens in the grandstand in the stewards’ enclosure but there won’t be any screens in other areas.

Sir Steve says: “We’re broadcasting every race this year and that is taking a huge amount of time to set up. It has probably taken up most of my time.

“However, it should be a much quicker process in future as we work out the best way of doing it. It will become more automatic.

“Broadcasting isn’t new, it’s just the scale that’s bigger. The technology has changed but the financing hasn’t — it’s not cheap by any stretch but we think this is the right time to do it again, especially with streaming video being so widespread.

“It’s looking like our American entry will be very big this year and there are lots of crews from Australia, New Zealand and Europe as well.

“There’s going to be a good international flavour and not all the supporters will be able to come along but now they will be able to watch their friends, sons or daughters competing live. We see that as a big step forward.” Despite embracing technological change, Sir Steve said it was important not to let it spoil the atmosphere of the event.

“The regatta, and especially the stewards’ enclosure, is a bit like a reunion centre for people who’ve rowed at Henley or just taken part in the sport in general,” he says.

“It’s where you come every year to meet old friends and colleagues and I want that community feel to continue.

“There’s a saying that Henley never changes — in that respect Mike did a fantastic job and left behind some big shoes to fill.

“To move the regatta on from what he has done would be very difficult so I’d be very happy, however long I end up in the role, just to maintain the standard he set.

“In fact, it changed fairly significantly during his 22 years. Female stewards were introduced and seven new events were created, the Princess Royal Challenge Sculls and the Fawley, Prince of Wales, Prince Albert, Remenham, Princess Grace and Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cups.

“However, it’s nice that people don’t feel as though anything has changed because the atmosphere is still the same.

“We recently had a Harvard group come over who had last been to Henley 25 years ago and they said it hadn’t changed at all and they hoped it never would.

“From an athlete’s point of view it’s the nearest thing you’ll get to competing in a stadium.

“You get thousands of people coming to the Olympics but they’re all in one area and you’re sitting on the start line in deathly silence.

“Here, there are people along the whole length of the course so it’s packed and noisy from start to finish. It’s like a stadium stretched out over a mile-and-a-quarter.

“The atmosphere is electric — it’s a gladiatorial contest with only two lanes. There’s other river traffic and it’s quite a struggle to get a warm-up in before the racing starts.

“That’s to say nothing of the social side. It means a lot of different things to different people and there’s no other regatta in the world with such a devoted following.

“Some people want to be here even if they don’t know a thing about rowing.

“I could never have imagined that I’d be chairman when I first rowed here in 1980. I’m forward-thinking but not that much.”

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