Sunday, 01 August 2021

I won a silver medal at the Olympics... after being told that I would never row for my country

I won a silver medal at the Olympics... after being told that I would never row for my country

FRED SMALLBONE says he never set out to be a rebel but that he would “go through, round or over people” who stood in his way in his quest for an Olympic medal.

He achieved his dream in 1976, winning silver with the Great Britain eight in Montreal.

Yet just six years earlier he had been told that he would never row for his country.

This followed an infamous incident on the water during the final of the Wyfold Challenge Cup at that year’s Henley Royal Regatta.

Mr Smallbone was in a Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club four competing against the Trident crew from South Africa.

He recalls: “We were winning the race when there was a collision right outside the stewards’ enclosure.

“I heard the other crew being warned and then we were disqualified. They put their blades on our backs and pushed past us to the finish.

“We said lots of things we probably shouldn’t have said or done. There were various gestures made towards the stewards’ enclosure and it all carried on when we got to the boathouse.”

The “diplomatic incident”, as the
69-year-old now calls it, was reported across the world.

He says: “The people in the rowing world and the oarsmen we cared about, they were right on our side. Others were determined we would never row for the country. People said ‘you’ll never row for Great Britain’.”

In fact, Mr Smallbone, of Allnut Close, Watlington, is a two-time Henley winner and has been a regatta steward for almost 30 years.

But in the Sixties and Seventies, with his long hair, he didn’t fit the profile of what an international rower was expected to be and he found “12ft high brick walls” put in his way on his journey to the top of the sport.

Born in Tottenham in 1948, just a few minutes from the River Lea by bicycle, he was first introduced to rowing at the age of 10.

“My brother Bob went to school with a guy called Bobby Lutz, whose father Wally was captain of Crowland Rowing Club on the Lea,” he recalls. “He asked my brother, who was four-and-a-half years older than me, to cox.

“When he became too big he asked ‘have you got a little brother?’ so I got to go down and they said ‘whatever it is, Bonesy will steer it’.

“I still meet up with guys I steered in the boat as a kid 55 years ago. I stayed at the club and really got an education through the guys that I steered as I sat in the coxswain’s seat and watched a million strokes being rowed.

“I then graduated as I grew to become an oarsman.

“There was just something about the river, the water and the people that I loved and continue to do so today. The winter of 1965/66 was when I started to take things seriously and do some proper training.”

In the 1966 season, he was in a four that won 11 races, going from novice to elite.

In 1967 Mr Smallbone had his first taste of rowing at the royal regatta when he was in a Crowland eight that lost to Cornell in the quarter final of the Thames Challenge Cup.

He returned the following year in a four to win the Britannia Challenge Cup, then called the Henley Prize, with himself in the stroke seat. “That probably gave me the inkling that I might be able to do a bit more in the sport,” says Mr Smallbone. “It was a great achievement.”

Around the same time Mr Smallbone found time to indulge his other passion — music.

He explains: “I’ve always had a big love of music — blues, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz. I used to go and see lots and lots of bands.

“I struck up a friendship with one of the guys in a band called Ten Years After after meeting the drummer in a club in north London and ended up working for them part-time.”

The band even took him on a tour of Scandinavia.

At the time, Mr Smallbone was an apprentice lithographer in London and found work and pleasure did mix.

He says: “Because I had a printer’s background, I started getting promoters and managers of bands coming to me to produce publicity material and posters. That was the early days of me being slightly entrepreneurial.”

This led to a job with record sleeve manufacturers E J Day.

In March 1969 he left Crowland RC and joined the Thames Tradesmen’s in a four with Jim Clark, Billy Mason and Lenny Robertson.

He recalls: “We weren’t exactly what the establishment at that time expected prospective international oarsmen to be.

“We were all just basically working class guys but we were in love with the sport and we were all useful in a boat and we knew where we wanted to be.

“It was at that time we made a promise that we would get selected for the Olympics in 1972.”

The crew were coached by Jim Railton, whom Mr Smallbone says was a key figure in their selection for the British team.

He explains: “He wasn’t prepared to see talented people not rewarded because of their background, so that was the kind of ethos that the four of us had. It was ‘nobody’s better than me and I’m no better than anybody else’. We just wanted to be treated the same.

“We used to go up to Nottingham for training in the early Seventies but instead of training, the selectors would put together crews to beat us, which they never did.”

In fact, the four remained unbeaten by any British opposition from August 1969 to September 1972, when they disbanded.

Mr Smallbone recalls: “We weren’t getting any help and basically we had to do it all ourselves. We got as much help as we could from the club — they bought us a new boat — but everything else we paid for.

“It could become quite wearing but we took everything that went against us and used it as energy — it actually sustained us. The more people tried to knock you down, these four guys were determined to stand up.”

At the British trials in Boston in 1970 Railton brought along a photographer from The Times to take pictures of the four in action.

Mr Smallbone says: “He took pictures of us in the boat, particularly our heads, because we were told that unless we cut our hair we wouldn’t be selected, even if we won. If we had won and not been selected it would have been on the front cover of The Times. Those photographs were, if you like, an insurance policy.”

The crew did win and were selected to go to Canada for the 1970 world championships where they came 10th.

The incident at Henley that same year was avenged a year later in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup when the crew beat Trident in the first heat by two-and-a-half lengths and went on to win the final. In the same year the crew finished eighth in the European championships in Copenhagen.

Then in 1972 Mr Smallbone had his first taste of the Olympics in Munich, when he finished seventh in the coxless four event.

The Games were marred by an attack by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September in which 11 Israeli Olympic team members were taken hostage and eventually killed, along with a German police officer.

Mr Smallbone says: “We woke up to find police and soldiers in the Olympic village and the Israelis being held hostage. We didn’t really know what was going on until we got outside.

“They held one day of mourning and suspended the Games for a day.

“It was sort of like ‘it’s got to go on, we can’t let them stop it’ plus the fact we had a situation where everybody’s flights back home were on a particular day. We ended up leaving on the day of the closing ceremony.”

In 1973 Mr Smallbone married his wife Nicky and took a year out from the sport but did win the national championships with Quintin Boat Club in an eight.

He says: “By that time Bob Janousek had come to Britain. He started the first national squad in October 1973.”

The Thames Tradesmen’s quartet were part of an eight at the 1974 world championships at Lucerne, winning a silver medal.

The same year a Leander Club and Thames Tradesmen’s composite crew with Mr Smallbone in the three seat lost in the final of the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley to a Russian crew.

In 1975 he had another break from the sport because he had a young family and because of the terrible state of the British economy.

Mr Smallbone was then working for Culver Graphics in Lane End and he recalls: “The printing industry was on its knees, no one was buying anything.

“I was a rep on the road and driving all over the south and the Midlands.”

He did find time to compete in the Silver Goblets at Henley with Glyn Locke, losing to a Dutch crew in the final.

In 1976, he was part of the Great Britain squad, filling the two seat in the eight.

Mr Smallbone says: “When it comes to Olympic boats there are no soft seats and every seat is just as important as any other. The most important thing was to be in that eight.”

The rowers trained on a piece of water which is now Thorpe Leisure Park.

“We only had 1,500 metres but there was no one on it apart from us,” he says.

“We got £2 a week in meat vouchers from Dewhurst Butchers as sponsorship!

“The measure of what Bob Janousek did for British rowing is that in 1968 the West Germans were the Olympic gold medallists. Two Olympic cycles later they were using the British eight as their yard-stick.

“The training was very hard — brutal is probably the right word.

“We knew where we wanted to be and we had to go through people, round people or over people.

“We didn’t really mind, we were going to row for Great Britain and at the Olympics. That was basically the pact that we made.”

The British eight was beaten in the Olympic final by the East Germans, losing by just under a length. However, at the time the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes from the Eastern bloc was rife.

Mr Smallbone says: “No one likes getting beaten. If you’re beaten straight up by someone better you can hold your hand up and say, ‘well done, you’re better than me today’.

“But when you get beaten by people who are chemically enhanced it’s more difficult to come to terms with.”

However, he adds: “That medal was mine. Nobody had bought it for me and all the guys in that boat could say the same.

“I’ve stood on the Olympic rostrum — a million pounds won’t put you on there as there’s only one way you can get there.

“I’m still the only guy from the Lea who has won an Olympic medal, which I would love to see eclipsed.”

After the Olympics, Mr Smallbone decided to retire.

He recalls: “Basically, I went from being ultra-competitive to feeling ‘that’s it. I’m done’. I was 28, I had two kids, Emma and Lucy, and I was about ready to start my own company and the time was right.”

The same year he started his own printing firm but stayed close to the rowing world. He coached at Thames Tradesmen’s RC from 1978 to 1986 and was club captain from 1980 until 1985.

He went on to coach at Oxford from 1987 to 1994 and was involved in 10 Boat Races, winning seven and losing three.

In October 1986 he was approached by the Sports Council to help create a 2,000m rowing centre at London Docklands.

He became chairman of the Royal Albert Dock Trust with the aim of creating a facility for youth rowing in the capital, helped by
£10 million from the National Lottery.

The facility, called the London Regatta Centre, was opened by the Princess Royal in 2000 and was the base for London Youth Rowing.

The trust also employed Simon Goodey, who was key in delivering adaptive rowing in the UK. Mr Smallbone also helped start the London Docklands Regatta, which ran from 1987 to the early 2000s, and served as chairman of the London Council for Sport and Recreation.

In 1988, while coaching at Oxford, some members of the crew were selected to row for the United States.

Mr Smallbone was brought into the US coaching set-up by Ted Nash, head coach at Penn AC rowing club and a friend.

He went to the Olympics in Seoul with the American coxed pair but the stroke fell ill and the boat didn’t make the final.

Later in his coaching career, Mr Smallbone oversaw the fours and eights at the University of the West of England from 2002 to 2010, discovering Pete Reed, who went on to win three Olympic gold medals as a member of Leander Club in Henley.

It was also in 1988 that he was elected as a regatta

“I just got on with the job really,” he says. “I became part of the team and in my second year I ran the boathouses.

“I started taking my umpire exams because I wanted to umpire at Henley. I didn’t what had happened to me in the final of the Wyfolds to happen to another crew.”

He spent 18 years umpiring at the regatta and has started the qualifying races since the early Nineties.

He also still serves on the regatta’s committee of

Mr Smallbone says: “The regatta originally had a reputation for being slightly detached from the competitors but under the chairmanship of Mike Sweeney and now Steve Redgrave there’s been a harmonising between the stewards and competitors.

“The competitors that I know like to see us as a strong overarching body but they also know that we’re approachable and we’re always willing to listen to what they tell us.

“I haven’t missed a day since I’ve been a steward and I feel Henley royal is the best regatta in the world.”

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