Indian rowing in troubled waters as players, coaches clash

In 2017, Dattu Bhakanal found himself in the middle of a row between the Rowing Federation of India and the Army Rowing Node. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Dattu Bhokanal could not have started his competition any worse than he did. In fact, his misfortune began even before the start of the single sculls final at the lake in Palembang's Jakabaring Sport City.

Dattu had simply stepped off the pier and got onto his skiff. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to lock his oar, so instead of slipping into his craft, he took a tumble into the water.

It was as rookie a mistake as could have been made -- the equivalent of a batsman walking out without his bat -- and certainly not one expected of the 2016 Olympian.

"In all my years of rowing I haven't seen an experienced rower like Dattu do something like that," India coach Ismail Baig said.

It was an inauspicious start to the day and it would get steadily worse for the Indians. After a promising start to the race -- Dattu was trailing by 0.87 seconds after the first 500m of a 2km course -- he finished disastrously. Dattu eventually coasted the final kilometre of the race, crossing the line in 8.28.56 seconds - over a minute behind the winner Zhang Liang of China, who clocked 7.25.36 seconds.

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally

That performance would set the tone for the Indian contingent. India had qualified for five finals, finishing out of the podium in each race. Two Indians finished fourth, with Gurinder Singh and Malkeet Singh dropping from second place to fourth over the last 200m of the race.

On the whole, it was one of Indian rowing's worst days at the Games and increased the possibility of the country finishing out of the medals tally for the first time since 1986. By the end of the day, recriminations followed. Coach blamed players, players blamed injuries and illness, while others blamed each other.

Dattu claimed he was unwell over the past few days. "I went to the medical centre yesterday. I was unwell even before this competition but the last few days of racing made things too difficult. I didn't have any strength after 1000m. I wanted to finish strongly but I couldn't."

However, Romanian chief coach Nicolae Gioga, who had taken charge of the team last year, was not impressed.

"I didn't know that he was unwell. We are looking for reasons to find for when we are not winning," said Gioga, who had led Romania to five Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000.

According to Gioga, the problem had been brewing for a while with a number of rowers missing training sessions at the training camp in Pune. Even before the Asian Games, Swaran Singh, who eventually finished fourth in the double sculls race, had suffered a bout of typhoid. But illness was a constant concern.

"Someone will have diarrhea, pain here, pain there, pain everywhere. Dattu stopped training for different reasons."

Another coach who did not wish to be named said that the problem lay instead with Gioga's training methodology.

"Gioga has eschewed the ergometer (rowing machine) and heavy gym work, wanting them to instead concentrate on their ability on the water. With strength training not prioritised, injuries were an obvious outcome," the coach said.

Gioga felt the issue was elsewhere. He maintained that he had followed a similar training pattern during his coaching stints in China and Iran, with the latter team winning five golds at the 2017 Asian Championships. He has had to recalibrate his expectations with the Indian team.

"The fact is that these Indian muscles can't support my training," he said.

Gioga had expected India to fight for seven gold medals at the start of the Games but scaled down his expectations after the first day.

"Before, I wanted seven gold. Now I say thank god if we get three. Today I was looking for one gold and two tomorrow. Now I wonder where two golds comes from. Maybe one from quadruple sculls but where does the other come from?"

For Gioga, who has coached multiple world champions, it was an unusual situation to be in.

"I might have a dry mouth and have some emotions before a race but I was always confident. Confidence comes from training. I couldn't push my athletes because they broke down so often. This time I was scared and afraid."

Equally disappointed with the results was Baig.

"I've been in Indian rowing for 20 years and there hasn't been a day in the Asian Games competition when we have come back from a race day without a single medal," he said.

Baig says the Indian rowing association will plot what went wrong after the Asian Games, but for Gioga, the hurt will linger.

"For me rowing is a hobby. When medals are missing, why continue? I didn't have this problem in China and Iran."