The sport of rowing is one of the oldest organized sports in the Western world. The modern version of the sport was developed mainly in England in the nineteenth century, especially in the public school system. However, boat races somewhat similar to the modern sport took place in ancient Greece during the ancient version of the Olympics.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, rowing gained much popularity.
The sport was particularly famous in countries with a history of immigration from Great Britain: Canada, Australia, and the U.S.A. Most of the main colonial countries had national championships, and a world championship was regularly held. The sport developed either in private clubs or in elite educational institutions. In 1852, a race between Yale and Harvard universities in the U.S. was the first organized athletic competition of any kind.
The turn of the century saw the sport’s ascendancy to one of the largest spectator sports. Many regularly held races depended on betting or gambling to attract spectators. The biggest international matches attracted thousands of spectators, and much money was wagered. Canadian Ned Hanlan was perhaps the greatest of the early rowing champions.
In the late nineteenth century he dominated international rowing races.
Hanlan also combined his rowing skill and prowess with his own unique brand of showmanship to attract spectators. Hanlan is also known for having invented the “sliding seat.” His wooden seat set on wheels greatly increased his efficiency and speed and gave him a distinct advantage over competitors. Before Hanlan’s time, rowers would wipe grease on a wooden platform in the boat and slide over the grease. The older technique was less reliable and did not allow as much leg drive as Hanlan’s newly invented seat.
As the twentieth-century unfolded, rowing lost some of its earlier public support and distinction. In North America, as professional sports attracted the attention of spectators and television viewers, other amateur sporting traditions, such as rowing, lost support. Today, rowing maintains a strong tradition under the administration of the world governing body for the sport. However, the yearly world championship does not typically receive the attention of other major sports events, such as track and field. The highlight of rowing competition is undoubtedly the Olympic Games. However, older traditional races, such as the English Henley and the yearly Oxford-Cambridge Boat race, still attract large crowds.
A more recent development in rowing is recreational and Masters rowing. In an attempt to regain popularity in the sport, many clubs in North America are offering less competitive recreational programs and encouraging older Masters rowers to participate. This is probably a positive move in at least two reasons. One is that the sport will attract many more participants. However, the other equally important reason is that the sport might dispense some of the “elitist” image many people have of the sport as an “English old-boy” sport.