Moments after Olena Buryak won her latest rowing title, she was bent over her knees heaving and exhausted from the gruelling 2,000-metre race. The other competitors, close but unable to catch her at the world indoor rowing championships, looked equally drained.
The difference: Buryak competed virtually from Ukraine, while the Canadian Olympic gold medallists who made the podium — Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski second, Sydney Payne third — were there in person at Mississauga’s Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga.
This first-ever hybrid version of the indoor rowing worlds — where athletes at the host venue competed in real time against challengers in other countries, time zones, even a war zone — was a dramatic demonstration of what is now possible with sports technology.
“Thank god everything was OK,” Buryak said in a video call from Kyiv after last Sunday’s win. “We hadn’t any missiles and we hadn’t any blackouts, and also we had mobile connection. And I had the possibility to compete with the biggest names in rowing.”
Ukraine’s Olena Buryak races to the gold medal in the 23-39 women category at the World Indoor Rowing Championships, a hybrid event held virtually where athletes at the host venue in Mississauga competed in real time against athletes in multiple countries, time zones and even a war zone. Canada’s Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski finished second and Sydney Payne in third in the 2,000-metre race while competing at Paramount Fine Foods Centre on February 26, 2023.
Many competitors rowed on machines lined up on the arena floor, but others were in Australia, Britain, Egypt, Germany, Malta, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Like many endeavours, this event had to change or cease to exist during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A very active Zoom meeting
The Concept 2 rowing machines the sport relies on are commonly found in national team training centres, gyms and homes. Time-Team, which specializes in timing systems for rowing regattas, created a platform to connect all of those rowing monitors in a virtual race — a bit like a large, very active Zoom meeting.
What started as a pandemic workaround proved to have big benefits. Virtual championships are accessible to more athletes and expand the number of nations that can afford to compete. So, rather than going back to the pre-pandemic way of doing things as many sports have, rowing opted for this hybrid path in hopes that it will prove to be the best of both worlds.
“We really want to keep this event as accessible and inclusive as possible,” said World Rowing sport manager Liz Soutter. “But we also want to give competitors the chance to go head to head and see their competitors in the eye if they want that, and they’re willing to put up the funds to travel to do that.”
The main distances are 2,000 metres (the Olympic standard for outdoor rowing, which generally takes six or seven minutes) and 500 metres (a minute and a half to two minutes).
“To have people who are not flying halfway across the world for maybe a two-minute race, that certainly has some environmental benefits,” Soutter added.
How climate change is affecting sports
The effects of climate change are already visible in summer and winter sports: from running and tennis, which struggle with extreme heat, to ski races cancelled for lack of snow and outdoor ice rinks unable to open. Concern is also growing about the environmental impact of athletes, officials and fans flying around the world for events, and the rising costs shutting out potential participants.
Could hybrid events be the future for at least some of these sports? Soutter thinks so.
“The world is changing,” she said. “Young people are changing in the way that they engage with sport and want to participate in sports, and sport federations need to embrace those changes and move with the change, and not just kind of dig their heels in and stick to the traditions.”
Cheri Bradish studies innovation as director of the Future of Sport Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“The general narrative is sport has been very slow, but now is very quick to adopt a technology,” Bradish said.
More tech on the field of play — for example, monitoring and comparing athletes’ workloads — and aimed at more direct fan engagement is a trend that the pandemic put into overdrive. Real-time connectivity in rowing opens the door to a future where fans could test themselves from home against the best in the world. What weekend warrior hasn’t wondered how they’d measure up?
What’s possible isn’t always desirable
Bradish said the indoor rowing experience “does democratize the sport a bit, in terms of being able to participate in countries that don’t have the same budget for travel.” But she cautioned that what is technically possible won’t necessarily be desirable in sports where marketing and ticket sales drive business.
“What we often see is, these tech decisions do have a strategic vision attached to them.”
In the case of rowing, that’s expanding participation and developing the sport in non-traditional markets. But if a sport charges hundreds of dollars for tickets to watch live, “they probably would second guess how much they want people competing in person — for the theatre, for the fandom — versus online,” she said.
Gruchalla-Wesierski won gold with the Canadian women’s eights at the Tokyo Olympics and enjoyed a rare opportunity to compete solo — against Buryak, one of the sport’s record holders.
“To be able to see her name on my monitor was pretty special,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said. “To be honest, I was kind of surprised that I was able to be within a few seconds of her; I was expecting to finish at least 10 behind.
“It’s a privilege that we get to compete against her, and pretty exceptional that she’s choosing to dedicate herself to this despite what’s going on at home for her” more than a year after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Bringing world’s best together
Spectators in Mississauga saw rowers on the arena floor as well as athletes such as Buryak on video display and a leaderboard to track their times.
“I wish everybody could be here in person … but if this is the only way we’re going to get the best in the world here, then it’s the right thing to do,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said.
She and teammate Payne would not have attended these championships in person had they been far away. There’s no Canadian team budget for this event, and they’re both also busy training with the women’s eights for the start of the World Cup season in June, and the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The last world indoor rowing championships before COVID-19 restrictions saw competitors from 51 countries gather in Paris. That rose to 66 during the pandemic years, when the event moved fully online. Last weekend’s event included athletes from 68 countries, more than a third online.
“As we move into this new age of connected fitness and connected sport, people are a little bit afraid of the unknown,” Soutter said. “As we normalize this — because we really do want indoor rowing to be as accessible and inclusive as possible — I think people will sort of give up their reservations and let go, and accept that this is a really viable and exciting way to participate and to compete.”
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