Somewhere there are some coxswains fuming over this, I'll bet:
The position doesn't require brawn, speed or years of training — just a healthy set of lungs and a good sense of direction. China's Olympics rowing team is searching for coxswains: two diminutive people with big voices who will steer the men's and women's teams of eight rowers in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The news here is not that China's looking for Olympic coxswains, but how they're planning to do it. The national broadcaster, CCTV, is launching a reality game show to find one man and one woman to join the Olympic team.
Most everyone (including Flash) is having a good laugh at this, and it is a pretty bizarre idea. But you know, maybe it's not that outrageous. I am not a rower myself, but I think it's safe to say that selection of coxswains for Olympic teams is always somewhat less objective than selection of rowers. Here's what Rowing Canada Aviron has to say on the subject in its 2006 selection document:
Coxswains interested in being considered for any team will be selected by the National Program Coach and High Performance Director based on the following criteria: (1) Athlete and coach input on ability; (2) Past racing experience and results; (3) Compatibility with athletes in a selected crew; (4) Willingness to support the coach’s direction.
That sounds a lot like "send us your resume and we'll set up an interview if we're interested." I am sure that the National Program Coach and the High Performance Director work very hard to ensure that the best candidates are chosen for the job, but the qualities they are looking for are pretty tough to measure.
That doesn't mean that they're trivial, of course. The way this story is being presented in the western media, it sounds like a coxswain just has to be small and loud, which is pretty insulting to coxswains. And it may turn out that the show is just as insulting, or worse. But that's going to depend pretty strongly on the details of the process.
I'm also curious about just how open the competition will be. When North Americans think of "reality shows," we usually assume that participation is restricted to amateurs or novices. Actual pop stars can't audition for American Idol, and professional chefs can't compete on Hell's Kitchen. Even sports-based reality shows like Making the Cut or Ultimate Fighter are built around collections of never-were's and almost-could-have-been's.
The tone of the WSJ piece (and this one from the CBC) makes it sound like China Olympic Coxswain Competition is going to have a similar format:
The reality show, however, will be looking for competitors who are at least 16 years old, said Nathan Jones, the international-relations manager for the program to The Sunday Times in the U.K. They should also weigh under 100 pounds and be in good health, he said, but otherwise there are few restrictions. “Everyone from the lowest peasant to old grannies can apply and can potentially be in the running for a gold medal, ” said Jones.
It's clear that they're making an open casting call, but I wonder if China's current coxswains will be part of the competition. It's not like they haven't been successful. The Chinese women's eight, with coxswain Zheng Na, finished fourth at the 2006 World Championships. Zheng Na also steered and cajoled the crew to a fourth place finish at the 2004 Olympic games. Surely, if the Chinese are serious about getting the best possible coxswain, Zheng Na needs to be included?
Now if China really wanted to push the envelope, they should try picking the rowers this way.
Back when I was in university, I dated a member of the UBC varsity women's rowing team. (In fact, I married a member of the UBC varsity women's rowing team, but this story is about a different rower.) She had started rowing in 1990, at the age of 19. In 1994 she started racing for Canada. In 1996, she won an Olympic silver medal in the eight. She added a bronze in 2000.
My point is that becoming an Olympic rower is so easy that anybody can do it.
No, wait, that's not it. My point is that people — athletic, driven, exceptional people with an incredible capacity for hard work — can become Olympic rowers even if they have no rowing experience until well into adulthood. There aren't too many sports that can make that claim.
Given that fact, it's not so far-fetched to imagine that a reality show that casts a wide net for potential candidates might actually turn up an Olympic athlete or two. If I was in charge of the rowing program in a totalitarian regime where the rights of the athletes were only of minor concern, I might consider it.
What would kill the idea, as far as selecting rowers is concerned, is that the transformation from novice to Olympian takes more than a couple of years. That's mostly because of the aforementioned hard work; you can't develop the physiological abilities of a world-class rower without an enormous training volume. That part of the process is too slow for TV, I'm afraid.
Meanwhile, the Chinese think that they can train a world-class coxswain in two years, if they start with the right material. Can they do it? I guess we're going to find out.