Rowing, a history

Rowing was used by all the major ancient civilisations in war and peace. Many sea battles were won by out-manoeuvring the opponents on the water, the Athenians often won because their war ships, such as the Trireme powered by 170 oarsmen, were able to ram enemy ships at great speed. 

Races between oared galleys were held in ancient Egypt and Rome, but it was in the 18th century that it became popular as a sport, when watermen raced long barges on the Thames. The Thames continues to be the setting for three of the most celebrated annual rowing events in the world: Doggett's Coat and Badge Race, first held in 1715, The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, first held in 1829 and the Henley Royal Regatta, first held in 1839. 

Adaptive rowing can be traced back to Philadelphia, USA, when blinded World War II veterans competed in an Army versus Navy race. 

The first disability rowing club was affiliated to British Rowing in 1998.

Rowing, a competitive sport 

By the 1890s rowing was established as a major sport in Europe and America, with clubs also being established as far afield in Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand. However, there were no standardised rules or technical specifications which led to local variations, a major issue for international competition. 

After hosting a ‘European Championship’ in 1890, the Belgian Federation of Rowing Clubs called for an international congress of rowing federations to enable the move towards standardisation. Delegates from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland met in Brussels, Belgium, in 1891 and Turin, Italy in 1892, leading to the founding of the Federation Internationale des Societies d’Aviron (FISA) in 1892. 

Rowing was a scheduled event for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896, however, the events had to be cancelled because of stormy weather, so its’ actual debut was at the Paris Olympics. Women’s events were introduced at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. 

Although there was an exhibition event in Adaptive Rowing at the 1993 World Rowing Championships in Tampere, Finland it was not until 2002 that FISA introduced an Adaptive World Rowing Championships at Seville, Spain, when athletes competed in the TA Mixed Single Sculls and LTA Mixed Coxed Four at Seville in Spain. In Milan in 2003 the TA Mixed Single Sculls was dropped while AS Men's Single Sculls and TA Mixed Double Sculls were added. The next change to the events was the addition of AS Women's Single Sculls in 2006. 

The GB team started competing in Adaptive World Rowing Championships in 2003.

Rowing, a Paralympic sport

Added to the Paralympic Programme in 2005, rowing made its’ debut at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Rowing at the Paralympic Summer Games

  • 2008 Beijing, China – 4 events, 23 countries and 108 athletes (56 men and 52 women) participated.
  • 2012 London, UK – 4 events, 23 countries and 96 athletes (48 men and 48 women) participated.

British rowing medal winners

  • 2008 Beijing, China
    Tom Aggar - gold in Men's Single Sculls AM1x.
    Helene Raynsford - gold in Women's Single Sculls AW1x.
    Great Britain (Vicki Hansford, Naomi Riches, Alistair McKean, James Morgan, Cox - Alan Sherman) - bronze in Mixed Coxed Four LTAMix4.
  • 2012 London, UK
    Great Britain (Pamela Relph, Naomi Riches, David Smith, James Roe, Cox - Lily van den Broecke) - gold in Mixed Coxed Four LTA.

Disclaimer -
Some information from earlier Paralympic Games (i.e. 1960-1988) such as relay and team members are not presented in the IPC source data. Therefore, final results, medal standings and derived statistics may not be complete.
Important note on the definition of participants: Only athletes that appear in the official results books in the section of final results are included in the database and counted towards participant statistics. Data for 2014 and 2016 are accurate. Statistics for previous Games are under review by the IPC.
Important note on competition partners: Competition partners eligible for medals are included in the combined participant statistics until 2014. Statistics for 2016 and beyond consider athletes with an impairment and their competition partners separately. 

How rowing has evolved

Technology is playing a major part in the marginal gains being seen in the sport. A range of sensors, fitted during training, provide information about the performance of the athlete and the boat hull which can help identify areas for improvement which are not necessarily visible to the naked eye.

As telemetry is banned during races, GPS and an accelerometer are used to collect data for, what can only be an approximate comparison, with training data, because GPS is much less accurate.

Rules of rowing

In 2017 the names of the Sport Classes were changed to bring them into line with other para sport naming conventions.

  • PR1 (formerly AS)
    Athletes who have to apply force predominantly using their arms and/or shoulders but with minimal or no trunk function. They are also likely to have poor balance while sitting and require strapping around their mid-section to provide support.
    Events – Men’s and Women’s single sculls.
  • PR2 (formerly TA)
    Athletes who have functional use of their trunk, arms and shoulders but are not able to use a sliding seat to propel the boat because of significantly weakened function or mobility of the lower limbs.
    Event – Mixed double sculls.
  • PR3 (formerly LTA)
    Athletes with functional use of their legs, trunk, arms and shoulders, who can use a sliding seat. This Class includes athletes with visual impairment, and there may be up to two rowers with a visual impairment in the boat.
    Event – Mixed coxed four. 

Men’s and Women’s Single sculls
Crewed by a single rower, the boat has buoyancy pontoons attached for stability and a fixed seat. The athletes use two oars, one in each hand (known as sculling) and are strapped to the seat so that only their arms can be used for propulsion. 

Mixed double sculls
The two-person crew, one male and one female, compete in a standard Olympic boat which does not have buoyancy pontoons. As in single sculls, the athletes use two oars, the seat is fixed and they are strapped to the seat so that only their arms can be used for propulsion. 

Mixed coxed four
The crew must consist of two male and two female rowers, and a male or female cox (who steers the boat) who does not have to have an impairment. They use standard boats with sliding seats. These athletes hold one oar with two hands and use a sweeping, rather than sculling method.

The British Rowing publication, Adaptive Rowing Equipment Guidance provides detailed information. 

Competition takes place on a six-lane, straight-line course divided by marker buoys. The race being won when the bow of the leading boat crosses the finish line. 

Historically events have been contested over 1,000 metres, but the 2017 change to 2,000 metres, means that, for Tokyo 2020, the race distance will be the same as for the Olympics.

Governing bodies

The World Rowing Federation, FISA (from the French, Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron) is the international governing body. 

British Rowing is the national governing body for all indoor rowing and outdoor rowing in Britain.

Regional clubs

The BPA have created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.

British Rowing has a club finder, alternatively, contact them by email to find out more about getting started in adaptive rowing.

Northern Ireland
Contact Rowing Ireland to find out more about getting started in Para-Rowing.


Rowing stories

Video still of an interview with Naomi Riches

An interview with Naomi Riches MBE

Naomi Riches is an adaptive rower who was part of the British mixed coxed four team that won gold at London in 2012 and bronze in Beijing in 2008. Read more.