On August 16, 1930 in the Canadian city of Hamilton, 400 athletes hailing from 11 nations of the British Empire came together to compete in a multi-sport event.
The event was called the British Empire Games, becoming the precursor for the modern Commonwealth Games we know today. Australia was represented by nine male athletes at the inaugural Games.
The six sports at the Games included athletics, boxing, lawn bowls, wrestling, aquatics, which included swimming and diving (the only event women competed in however sadly there were no Australian women), and the sixth sport was rowing.
Rowing has had an interesting past with the Commonwealth Games, and Australia has captured 34 medals from the seven editions when the sport has been included on the sport programme at the Games.
Debuting at the inaugural Games in Hamilton in 1930, Australia was represented by the Rowing Australia legend Henry Robert ‘Bobby’ Pearce, who served as Australia’s opening ceremony flagbearer before going on to capture the gold medal in men’s single scull event. Only five rowing events were held, and in a quick, because only one team entered the double sculls competition, the Canadian duo won the gold medal by default.
Pearce was unemployed during the Great Depression and was only able to enter the Games due to the charity of friends who raised funds for his trip. After the Hamilton Games, whisky magnate Lord Dewar offered Pearce a job as a salesman and he liked the city of Hamilton so much he decided to live there and he remained in Canada for the rest of his life.
Left off the sports roster for the Games in London in 1934, rowing returned for the 1938 Games held in Sydney. Australia dominated the regatta on home waters winning three golds and a silver medal in the four events.
Herb Turner won gold in the single sculls, Cecil Pearce and William Bradley paired to win gold in the double sculls. The coxed foursome of Don Fraser, Sir Gordon Freeth KBE, Jack Fisher and Stewart Elder, with Harry Kerr as cox, won the gold medal over the New Zealand and Canadian teams. While the men’s eights narrowly missed out on the gold medal, trailing behind the English team by three-quarters of a length of a rowboat to claim silver.
After the Games paused due to World War II, the British Empire Games restarted in Auckland, New Zealand in 1950, however rowing was in jeopardy due to the fact Auckland did not have a suitable 2000m long rowing course. It was viewed as unthinkable not to include the sport, which was a New Zealand favourite, so competitors had to travel 160km south of Auckland to Lake Karapiro to compete.
Australian rowing legend Mervyn Wood (Rowing Australia)
Australia dominated winning four golds and a silver medal from the five events, led by rowing star Mervyn Wood who won gold in the single sculls and paired with Murray Riley to win the double sculls and Wood’s second gold of the Games. Wood won Olympic gold in London in 1948 and was elected flagbearer of the team in Auckland, the second rower to receive the honour in just four Games.
Wood returned to lead the rowing team at the Vancouver 1954 Games, defending the double sculls title with Riley, before joining coxswain Lionel Robberds, and rowers Dave Anderson, Peter Evatt and Geoff Williamson to win gold in the coxed four.
At the Games in Cardiff in 1958, Australia’s top rowing rivals England, New Zealand and Canada, began to reel in the Aussie’s strength in the sport. The green and gold came away from the regatta with one gold medal, Stuart MacKenzie in the single sculls, two silver medals and a bronze. The Games also brought an end to Mervyn Wood’s illustrious career when he and new partner MacKenzie were pipped for his third straight gold medal in the double sculls, losing by 0.6 seconds to claim the silver. Wood finished his career with four gold and a silver to go with his gold, silver and bronze from three Olympic Games. A true legend of Australian sport.
The Australian team were buoyed by expectations when the 1962 rowing events were held on the Canning River, in the Perth suburb of Applecross. But as the competition got underway temperatures reached a scorching 40.6 degrees Celsius, and rowing team officials concerned with athlete’s health under the sweltering heat decided to make line-up changes to Australia’s teams. The changes disrupted team chemistry and resulted in Australia finishing with a sole gold medal in the eights, a silver in the fours, and three bronze medals despite heading into the Games as favourites.
The tradition of including rowing in the Commonwealth Games endured through until 1966, when the Games were hosted in Kingston, Jamaica. Unfortunately Kingston did not have the facilities to accommodate the sport and this was the beginning of an extended period of dormancy for rowing at the Commonwealth Games.
The sport made one more appearance at the 1986 Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, which also marked the first time women’s rowing events were included on the programme.
Australia’s women rowing team at Edinburgh 1986 Commonwealth Games (Rowing Australia)
In 15 events, Australia’s star-studded team of rowers, many of who would become household names, came away with four golds, five silvers, and two bronze medals. Adair Ferguson claimed the female lightweight single sculls gold medal, and the women’s eight crew defeated England and Canada to secure the gold medal. The 1986 Games also saw Rowing Australia legends and ‘Oarsome Foursome’ members James Tomkins and Mike McKay win gold as members of the men’s eights and bronze in the men’s coxed four before both going on to represent Australia at four straight Olympic Games.
This final regatta was the last rowing has appeared at the Commonwealth Games despite being one of the original core sports of the Games. Rowing retains its status as an ‘optional’ sport for the Commonwealth Games, whereby the host nation may choose to include rowing in their event program. However, no host nation has yet taken up the opportunity to take the sculls and sweeps to the water.
Australian Medal Tally
Men’s Single Scull – Richard Powell – SILVER
Men’s Lightweight Single Scull – Peter Antonie – GOLD
Men’s Coxless Pair – Glenn Myler, Iain Belot – 5th
Men’s Coxless Four – Craig Muller, David Doyle, James Battersby, Neil Myers – 4th
Men’s Eight – James Galloway, Malcolm Batten, Andrew Cooper, Michael McKay, Mark Doyle, James Tomkins, Ion Popa, Steve Evans, Dale Caterson (cox) – GOLD
Women’s Single Scull – Adair Ferguson – 4th
Women’s Lightweight Single Scull – Adair Ferguson – GOLD
Women’s Coxless Pair – Alison Smith, Kate Hall – BRONZE
Women’s Coxed Four – Marilyn Kidd, Susan Chapman-Popa, Robyn Grey-Gardner, Debbie Bassett, Kay Fry (cox) – SILVER
Women’s Lightweight Four – Amanda Cross, Virginia Lee, Debbie Clingeleffer, Gail Toogood – SILVER
Women’s Eight – Ursula Kay, Vicki Spooner, Annelies Voorthuis, Marilyn Kidd, Susan Chapman-Popa, Robyn Grey-Gardner, Debbie Bassett, Margot Fraser, Kay Fry (cox) – GOLD
Men’s Single Scull – Ian Tutty – BRONZE
Men’s Double Scull – Barclay Wade, Graeme Squires – BRONZE
Men’s Coxless Pair – Roger Ninham, Bill Hatfield – BRONZE
Men’s Coxless Four – David Boykett, Maurice Grace, Peter Raper, Simon Newcomb – Eliminated in repechage
Men’s Coxed Four – David John, David M Caithness,? Derek E Norwood, David B Ramage, Phillip Sarah (cox) – SILVER
Men’s Eight – Ian Douglas, Charles Lehman, Duchan Stankovich, Terry Davies, Paul Guest, Graeme McCall, Martin Tomanovits, Neville Howell, David Palfreymen (cox) – GOLD
Men’s Single Scull – Stuart Mackenzie – GOLD
Men’s Double Scull – Stuart Mackenzie, Mervyn Wood – SILVER
Men’s Coxless Pair – Steve Roll, Kevyn Webb – BRONZE
Men’s Coxless Four – Bruce Evans, Kenneth Railton, Neville Clinton, Victor Schweikert – 4th
Men’s Coxed Four – Bruce Evans, Neville Clinton, Kenneth Railton, Peter Waddington, Lionel Robberds (cox) – SILVER
Men’s Eight – Bruce Evans, Neville Clinton, Ralfe Currall, Victor Schweikert, Kenneth Railton, Peter Waddington, Graeme Allen, Kevin Evans, Lionel Robberds (cox) – SILVER
Men’s Single Scull – Peter Evatt – 4th
Men’s Double Scull – Murray Riley, Mervyn Wood – GOLD
Men’s Coxless Pair – Geoff Williamson, David R Anderson – BRONZE
Men’s Coxed Four – Mervyn Wood, Peter Evatt, Geoff Williamson, David Anderson, Lionel Robberds (cox) – GOLD
Men’s Eight – Robert N Tinning, Phillips A Cayzer, Peter Holmes a Court, Bruce H Goswell, Ross L Selman, Eric O Longley, Edward O Pain, Alan W Brown, ?Jim E Barnes (cox) – GOLD
Men’s Coxed Four – Ken Gee, C William Winkworth, Erwin Eder, Lance Montgomery, Kevin Fox (cox) – SILVER
Men’s Coxless Pair – Jack Webster, Walter Lambert – GOLD
Men’s Double Scull – Murray Riley, Mervyn Wood – GOLD
Men’s Single Scull – Mervyn Wood – GOLD
Men’s Single Scull – Herb Turner – GOLD
Men’s Double Scull – William Bradley, Cecil Pearce – GOLD
Men’s Coxed Four – Gordon Freeth, Don Fraser, Stewart Elder, Jake Fisher, William Kerr (cox) – GOLD
Men’s Eight – W G Thomas, F A W LeSoeuf, G H Yewers, R L Paramor, E R Bromley, W J Dixon, A B Gould, A J Gregory, Douglas W Bowden (cox) – SILVER
Men’s Single Scull – Henry ‘Bobby’ Pearce – GOLD