What’s the deal?

In a tip of the hat to an ancient method of travel, rowing is a boat race where competitors muscle their boat down a 2000m calm straight of water using oars. What makes rowing different than canoeing is that the oars are fixed on the boat, so rowers have a specific rhythm and body motion they have to use to make sure they’re all stroking their oars through the water at the same time.

Rowing has two types of races: sculling and sweep. In sculling races rowers use two oars, while in sweep races they use just one, and the oars alternate sides. In smaller boats, one rower steers with a foot pedal, while in the 8-person boat, there’s an additional person called a coxswain who steers and calls direction through a megaphone.

Rowing’s been on the Olympic program since the beginning of the modern Games–but in a technicality, that first competition was cancelled due to weather.

World Rowing Federation has a great video on how to watch a race:

Who’s competing?

Men are competing in eight events, while women compete in six. Both do:

  • single sculls
  • double sculls
  • lightweight double sculls
  • quadruple sculls without coxswain
  • eight with coxswain

Women have:

  • pair without coxswain

Men have:

  • coxless pair
  • lightweight coxless four
  • four without coxswain

Why should I watch?

Rowing is pretty mesmerizing. It’s pretty cool to see these groups of people rowing in sync (and have you ever seen rowers’ bodies? They are in some amazing shape!). Races can also be incredibly close, and the way they can inch past each other can have you on the edge of your seat to find out who wins.


Potential drinking game:

If a boat wins by over a full length, take a sip.

The perfect snack:

Ants on a log


The World Rowing Federation (FISA) is the international governing body for the sport. Its site has great basic information on how to get involved with rowing at any age (including 85 and older). Fun fact: FISA is the oldest international sporting federation, created in 1982.

No rowing regatta can happen without umpires (sometimes called referees) who make up a jury. Here are some details about what it takes to be an umpire at the world level. Of course, like most sports, you’ve got to be a national-level official in order to be considered for the Olympics. The US, Ireland and Great Britain all have good information for their countries. Get an idea of what to search for from them.

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