Rowing Australia Lied to Senate Estimates

A recent report by Dr Tony Rice, Lead Scientist at Rowing Australia, points to something baffling going on within Rowing Australia. It tells of a botched equipment trial and reveals that Rowing Australian lied about it to the Australian Government. With penalties for making false or misleading statements to Senate Estimates coming with potential fines or gaol sentences, the stakes couldn’t be higher. This case provides a rare window into the workings of Rowing Australia, one of the world’s leading and richly funded rowing institutions … though its lesson is not necessarily one you want to take on board.

The botched trial was the testing of a prototype of the Randall foil in 2018 and Rowing Australia looks to have spent more time making excuses and covering it up than it ever would have taken to redo the test in the first place. The Randall foil is a new design concept for rowing blades and works by applying a hydrofoil to the top edge of a rowing blade. The foil is designed to optimise the performance, hold, grip and energy transfer from the rower into the water. The University of Porto has measured that both peak and average power transfer is dramatically increased through the use of the foil concept. The team led by Ricardo Cardoso used a testing method not common to rowing but is the gold standard for all other water sports like canoeing and kayaking. The test is conducted in a swimming pool and performance is measured by rowing against a tethered strain gauge. The research was published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine and featured as the lead article in The Science of Rowing. Yet, Rowing Australia in their report, discredited the University of Porto’s study and described the only legitimate trial as one which they had attempted to conduct themselves.

For many decades, Rowing Australia has been internationally recognised as a provider of the very best in high-performance sports governance. Australia has historically been a medal  producing powerhouse with oarswomen and men leaving a lasting legacy in our sport. Many look to Rowing Australia as the gold standard in policy, structures, practices and culture. I have much to thank Rowing Australia for and am both a product of and a lifelong participant in a sport that has brought so much purpose to my life. In recent years, domestically at least, Rowing Australia has been facing criticism that it is solely focused on maintaining its status quo, is too slow to adopt change and continues to lack transparency when it comes to critical decision making. Rowing Australia is a dinosaur in a fast changing corporate and social world. 

I had contacted Rowing Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport when preliminary trials of a new oar foil concept were showing measurable improvements in boat speed. And with the assistance of an Australian Olympic Medalist, the design carried a weight of credibility. Given that Australia has produced a number of sporting innovations like the Winged Keel and the LZR speed swimming suits, I had anticipated that the foil design would be of great interest. In 2018 Rowing Australia agreed to test the design at the Hancock Prospecting Women’s National Training Centre. On the morning of the trial, I received word that it was moved from the Sydney International Regatta Centre, the site of the 2000 Olympic games, to a fast flowing and windy section of the Nepean River. Despite this change, I was still optimistic that the results would speak for themselves. Two double sculls raced 5 x1k alternating with/without foils alongside a squad of single scullers serving as a control group with crews wired-up with the PEACH instrumentation. After the trial, I spoke with the crews who were excited to find out the results and said that they would be interested to do a follow-up over 2k. There was great anticipation all around.

Then we waited for the data to be published. And waited . . . days and weeks became months and years. The data never saw the light of day. There was no data and to my great disappointment, no communication from Rowing Australia explaining why. I was later reassured by an Assistant Coach at a chance meeting, if the data had shown that the foils were faster surely we’d be using them! 

Later In 2020 there was an enquiry by the Government into Rowing Australia’s for the non-use of the foil after Martino Goretti won the 2019 World Championship, beating the undefeated Australian Sean Murphy. Rowing Australia stated to Senate Estimates that the 2018 test on the foil was inconclusive – no effect, positive or negative – on rowing performance. Based on these results there was no further testing or interest in the design by Rowing Australia.  After two years of waiting we finally get an answer, but the answer only raised more questions. 

How could there be no effect? Just considering this from a research perspective, how could sticking a 30cm strip of plastic on a rowing oar have no effect? It was extraordinary, Rowing Australia claimed that there was no positive or negative result of sticking a foil to your blade! Can Australian athletes break the laws of hydrodynamics? In science such a result is referred to as a ‘Null’ are considered very important to scientific research because they help to eliminate potential explanations and can refine future experiments. Such a null result can be used to inform the scientific community of what does not work, which can be just as valuable as knowing what does work. For the rowing community, this null finding for the foil would highlight that we have misunderstood how oar shape affects performance. Or have we misunderstood our instrumentation and how it measures blade efficiency? Yet Rowing Australia had not communicated this finding, done any follow-up work or use this as an opportunity to investigate these questions. These answers alone could have helped oar designers better understand the physical science of our sport. “Null” results are important to research which makes Rowing Australia’s response alarming for it would appear that they are not serious about the scientific work they are funded to do.

Were Rowing Australia caught out after the publication of the University of Porto’s research into the Randall foil that highlights the performance potential of the design and has doubled down on its position on the design? Had they forgotten about the ‘null’ result previously reported for they let slip that the 2018 foil trial;

“The on-water conditions had an undetermined amount of flow of which far exceeds any speed benefit measured by the GPS device. As such the signal to noise ratio was far too low for us to determine if the Foils were of benefit to the rowers in this instance.”

Rowing Australia’s own integrity officer did not think lying to the government fitted into the integrity “remit” and the CEO of Rowing Australia “stands by” the report. We are in a time when organisational behaviour matters and individuals within organisations can no longer hide behind closed executive doors. All too often that organisational behaviours are systemic and one event is never in isolation. The way institutions treat employees, participants and stakeholders matter and the way you have been treated by an organisation is an indication of how it has treated others. This new report contradicts what Rowing Australia had originally said to Senate Estimates. The test had failed or the instrumentation or the data file was lost or someone had stuffed up somewhere? I guess that doesn’t matter, these things happen, the real question is why would Rowing Australia feel the need to lie? Why would a public servant risk so much to cover-up something so insignificant? On another level, why pass up an opportunity to adopt an innovation which may benefit Australian rowers through the performance gains the innovation offers? 

The implications for the Randall foil can be seen in terms of opportunities lost but there are much more significant considerations. If Rowing Australia is prepared to lie to the Australian Government over something so trivial as a strip of plastic it begs the question of whether there are other and even more significant issues that are not being addressed. 

The new Minister of Sport Anika Wells has decided not to pursue the matter any further as it relates to the actions of the previous government.

[This is an extended version published by Junior Rowing News – UK]