BERLIN—In the packed clubhouse at the Berlin Rowing Club excited shouting turns to tension as the British eight-man boat advances, endangering the German lead. With 400 meters left, the German boat catches up and finally reaches the finish line first—Germany wins the gold! The cheering reaches a crescendo as club members jump up, yelling the rowers’ names.
The German eight-man crew had won three world cup races in a row. With that experienced and growing national attention, they faced considerable pressure to succeed in the 2-km race Wednesday on Dorney Lake near Eton at the London Olympics.
Nowhere were expectations higher than at the Berlin Rowing Club (Berliner Ruder Club), which had two of its stock on the crew—Andreas Kuffner and cox Martin Sauer—and no shortage of former Olympic medalists in the clubhouse crowd watching the race.
Germany has a proud legacy in rowing. It has won 60 gold medals, more of any nation in Olympic history. Nonetheless, Wednesday’s win was first time in 24 years the men’s eight came first.
One reason why the Germans excel at the sport can be found at the club in southwest Berlin.
Founded in 1876, the club is Berlin’s oldest and also the country’s most successful. Over the course of 137 years, members have brought home 90 medals from the Olympic Games, World Cup and European Cup. The last time gold was at the Olympics in 1996.
“I was sitting at the edge of my seat,” said Jürgen Oelke, a club member for 45 years and a former Olympian.
Oelke knows first hand what the thrill of victory feels like. Under his guidance as the cox, Germany’s four-man boat brought home gold from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. After the race, he felt exhausted and happy, he remembers.
Before the race on Wednesday, Oelke said he had no doubt the German team would succeed.
“They have to win,“ he said, although he was surprised that the team changed its proven strategy during the race. Nonetheless, he said they drove wisely and made sprints at the right moments.
Over the last 38 years, professional rowing has changed a lot, observes the veteran rower.
In his day, crews were all “amateurs,” he says, but now the boats and techniques have grown much more sophisticated. Rowing has become a fulltime job now, and the pressure to win has increased dramatically.
In Oelke’s view, the success of the German team lies how the Berlin Rowing Club supports and trains it novices. Starting at age 10, they have elaborate programs to guide them to professionalism.
For Wolfgang Henze, a long-time rowing coach, a main characteristic of the club is its social cohesion.
“Everyone is rowing here … from garbage collectors to members of Parliament.” The oldest member who is 90, sometimes needs a little help to step into the boat.
Wednesday’s race was a good sign, said member Egbert Hirschfelder, who has won two Olympic golds.
It shows, he says, “for German rowing the future is bright.”
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