How do repechages work in Olympic rowing?

Dear Sports Fan,

I have become an Olympic junkie this year. I watch it all, from volleyball to table tennis to swimming! I have a question about rowing. I was watching a race and some of the boats qualified for the semi finals and some for something called a repechage. What is a repechage and how do repechages work in Olympic rowing?


Dear Marcella,

How cool that you’re enjoying the Olympics this year. A repechage is certainly a rare thing in sports. I wondered about it as well. It comes from the French verb, “repêch” which means literally to “fish up again.” Idiomatically, it means “to get a second chance.” In the context of rowing, a repechage is a race that gives athletes a second chance to advance to the next round in their event.

The way a repechage works in rowing depends on how many boats are racing in that event. In smaller events, the top two or three boats from each heat (the first race in an event) qualify for the semifinals. The rest of the boats get one more chance to qualify for the finals by placing in the top two or three of a repechage against other boats who did not qualify. In larger races, the repechage may sit between the initial heats and a semifinal race. In addition to rowing, Olympic track cycling has repechage races in the sprint and keirin events.

Do repechages make sporting events more or less fair? You could argue both positions. On one hand, having a repechage means that a single mistake can’t eliminate a team. If a great team has a terrible day, they can come back, win the repechage, or at least do well in it, and still make the finals or semifinals. On the other hand, the use of a repechage may make the semifinals or finals less even. Setting aside the fact, for a moment, that teams that lose an early race tend to be worse, on average, than teams that win an early race, the repechage still presents a problem for competition. By the time the finals come around, a team that had to go through a repechage has suffered through at least one more race than athletes who won their first race. This effect of a format isn’t unheard of — some American football teams get a “bye” going into the playoffs, meaning they play one fewer game than their opponents — but in a competition with a compressed schedule, like the Olympics, this can really tilt things. Now you have athletes who could not win their first race and who are now more fatigued than their opponents, going up against them in a final or semifinal. It’s a rare feat to come back from a repechage and win a medal!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Summer Olympics: All About Rowing

All About Rowing

One of the complaints I often hear about some sports (basketball, I’m looking at you,) is that it’s not worth watching the first 3/4 of the game when the result is always decided in the last few minutes. Rowing may be the sport least vulnerable to that complaint of any in the Olympics. Part of what is beautiful about rowing is that there are so few variables: stroke cadence, stroke strength, and stroke skill. Beyond that, all there is is effort. And wow, is there ever effort!

How Does Rowing Work?

Olympic rowing races are all 2 kilometers (about 1.25 miles) long. Boats start from a stand-still and start moving at the sound of the horn. In some events, rowers may have an oar in either hand or just one that goes to one side of the boat or the other. Boats may have one, two, four, or eight rowers in them, and may have a coxswain (a tiny person who screams at the rest of the rowers) or not.

Why do People Like Watching Rowing?

There is something mesmeric about watching rowing. The synchronized movement of the oars is soothing to watch. This provides a nice counter-point to the extreme effort the athletes are putting in and, if you are lucky, the incredible suspense of a close race. In rowing, there are no tricks to pull out to make up a deficit at the end of a race. Leads build or evaporate slowly, helping to build enormous dramatic tension. Hitchcock would have loved rowing!

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are 14 rowing events in the 2016 Olympics. These can be divided in a number of ways. First, there is gender: women’s and men’s events. Second, there is the number of people in the boat: one (single), two (double), four (quadruple,) and eight. Last, there is the style of rowing: sculls (where rowers have two oars in their hands, one on either side of the boat) and sweeps (where each rower has one oar, either on the right or the left of the boat.) The word “sculls” is always in the sculling event names. If you don’t see “sculls” you know it’s a sweeps event. Lastly, there are two events with weight limits known as “lightweight” events.

How Dangerous is Rowing?

One can only imagine the chaos that could be created by a mass pile-up of full speed rowers colliding in the water. Luckily, that doesn’t really ever happen. Rowing machines in gyms are always a good bet for being pointed to if you’re rehabbing an injury because of their ability to provide a full body workout without strain on joints. Rowing injuries are not unheard of, but you don’t see them at this level in competitions.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Rowing?

Men get two extra events! Women are not allowed to take part in either of the four person events — the coxless four or the lightweight coxless four. Sophomorically ironic and legitimately upsetting! On the other hand 2016 sees an increase in equality of numbers. There will be fewer men’s entries invited overall, bringing their number closer to that of the women.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Rowing is from Saturday, August 6 to Saturday, August 13.

Read more about rowing on the official Rio Olympics site.

Opening minds and eyes with sports

As we often explore on Dear Sports Fan, sports can be a reflection of social change or a harbinger of social change. Sports has its own culture, with progressive and traditional elements. Then there are the sports games themselves; the tactics of sports that evolve competitively. This week, three stories popped up that examine change within sports. 

One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from the best articles of the last week on the subject of change:

This fall has been a tense time for gender issues within sports. I think it’s also been a productive season for gender issues in sports. One challenge, examined in this article, is that only so much progress can be made while key echo chambers are so dominated by a single gender.

Why Are All My Twitter Followers Men?

by Wendy Thurm for Think Progress

I’m a sports fan and a baseball writer and I love the idea that American women care about sports nearly as much as American men do. But there are other numbers that tell us that while women might identify as fans of a particular sport or team, they don’t always engage with that team or that sport with the same level of energy we see from men.

For all the advances for women to play sports, there’s been very little change in the landscape for women covering sports… most sports shows still feature white male non-athlete reporters coupled with former players.

Which brings us back to social media. Despite the idea that new platforms have opened all sorts of discussions, including those about sports, to new audiences and participants, the divide between women and men looks remarkably similar to the one in traditional media… This is important because Twitter isn’t just part of the national sports discussion. It often drives the national sports discussion.

Here’s something I’ve long wondered. Why are positions so fixed in football? Why not put two quarterbacks on the field at once? Or, as Hawaii has done, a punter who can punt with either foot, throw, or run with the ball?

Meet Hawaii’s Scott Harding, the Most Interesting Man in College Football

by Michael Weinreb for Grantland

He was born in Australia, and he played Australian rules football for six years, five of them with his hometown Brisbane Lions. He grew up with the National Football League on his television set, a faraway curiosity that many Australians adore but most only partially comprehend. Watching the NFL and recognizing its broad outlines, Harding thought to himself, I have that kind of skill set.

Harding is a natural righty, but says he’s equally comfortable kicking with either foot, in part because the Australian game requires that sort of ambidexterity. Depending on the side of the field and the hashmark Hawaii finds itself on during a fourth down, Harding can either roll to his left and boot it left-footed, or move to his right and kick it right-footed. There is also the constant threat of a fake, because, in addition to executing pre-planned fakes off certain sets, Harding is adept enough as a runner that Demarest gives him a constant green light to take off. Because Harding is not averse to contact — the hits he takes almost feel muted, he says, after all of those years playing Australian football without pads — he winds up holding the ball until the last possible second so the kick coverage team can get downfield. He’s yet to have a punt blocked. His gross average is 41.8 yards and his net average is 41.1; opponents have managed a total of 30 punt return yards against him the entire season, a measly .41 yards per punt.

Every so often you hear about a sports team that poses naked to raise money. This is always fun because, who better to pose naked than fit, strong athletes? Plus there’s enjoyment in seeing some of the conventions of ultra-masculine (women’s teams have more nuanced stereotypes) groups of men getting naked with each other. One rowing team in England took things a step farther in awesomeness, when, after finding out that their calendars were mostly popular with gay men, decided to create a LGBT charity and donate a portion of their earnings from their calendar to it.

Team Calendar Makes A Splash To Fight Homophobia

by Ron Dicker for the Huffington Post

The U.K. squad has been producing a nude datebook fundraiser since 2009. When it discovered that much of its audience was gay, the team figured it should direct its charity toward the LGBT community, according to a video released to promote the new calendar. So the team has helped established a charity called Sport Allies, “a programme to reach out to young people challenged by bullying, homophobia or low self-esteem,” per the Warwick Rowers website.