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OLIVER HOLT: Olympic champion Sbihi opens up on helping tackle rowing’s startling lack of diversity

Mohamed Sbihi has started to question himself. In the past couple of months, an internal conversation has been going back and forth in his mind. ‘Why do I use the name Moe instead of Mohamed?’ he says. ‘Moe’s a nickname but Mohamed for the last 20 years has screamed of Islamic terrorism, fundamentalism. Is it easier to say Moe than it is to say Mohamed? Is it about feeling comfortable in society?

‘Jurgen Grobler, our head coach, calls me Mohamed, which is great. My nickname has always been Moe because my dad is also called Mohamed. But within promotion of my story and in the press, maybe I haven’t used “Mohamed” enough. The name became not a taboo but perhaps a sticking point. Even on my competition form for the Olympics, I’ve always put Moe. I don’t know what I want to do moving forward but let’s start with “Mohamed” and go from there.’

This weekend, Sbihi, who won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics in the British men’s four, the team’s blue riband boat, should have been competing at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay as he began the pursuit of a second gold medal to go with the bronze he won in the men’s eight at London 2012 but instead he is in training for the rescheduled Games next year and wrestling with issues surrounding the sport he loves that have been thrown into sharp relief by recent events.

Rowing is, overwhelmingly, a white person’s sport. A few years ago, a black rower started a conversation on the aggregation site, Reddit. ‘Hi, I’m a black rower,’ they said. ‘Ask me anything.’ The first question went like this: ‘Is it a weird feeling knowing you’re as rare as a leprechaun?’ Another respondent asked: ‘Do people stand and stare?’ ‘Not all the time,’ the black rower said, ‘but it has happened in the past.’

Until the killing of George Floyd provoked a wave of anger and introspection about race, the sport’s profile in the UK had gone relatively unquestioned. It helped that British Rowing was — and still is — an outstanding success story. Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matt Pinsent and James Cracknell are among our most decorated and celebrated Olympians, huge figures in our sporting history. The problem was camouflaged in gold.

There was no appetite to ask questions about the sport’s startling lack of diversity. But now there is. Some of them are horribly poignant. Some have assumed there must be physiological reasons why there are no black rowers because the alternative is too dismaying. But there aren’t any physiological reasons. The lack of black rowers is a socio-economic problem. It is a problem of opportunity. Or the lack of it.

Sbihi, 32, is keen to be part of the solution. He is an outlier in his sport, the first practising Muslim to row for Great Britain and, with Kyra Edwards, one of only two men or women from a black and minority ethnic background in British Rowing’s Olympic training group. Sbihi, whose father is from Morocco, and British Rowing, know that has to change.

To the sport’s credit, they recognise there is no quick fix. They know it is about more than the black square they posted on an Instagram page. They know it has to work far harder to attract kids from state schools to a sport that draws 90 per cent of its participants from public schools. It knows its clubs have to start working harder with outreach programmes into state schools. It knows it has to shed its mono-cultural reputation.

Once more, it is to its credit it has made progress in other areas. As many women as men won rowing medals for Team GB in Rio. The fact that there would probably have been more women than men in the British team that should now be competing in Tokyo would also have been close to being mirrored in the rowing squad. ‘In terms of the gender issue, the discrepancy has been levelled out,’ says Sbihi. ‘That was a 20-year change. Now we want to try to change our visual representation of British society and that doesn’t happen overnight but hopefully it will happen in 20 years. Looking back at this time, I hope we will say it was very rewarding and powerful because it was when the sport opened up.

‘The challenge is that in rowing, we need to try to represent what British society is. We have two people who are BAME. It is not good enough. It is not high enough. Two out of 44 in the Olympic squad. As a sport, we know that but it is how to implement a change that isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction. By 2032, we want to reach our goal of having a representation that is similar to British society while maintaining the current levels of success.’

Sbihi was plucked from his state school in Kingston by a programme called World Class Start that targeted schools outside rowing’s traditional public school catchment areas. And he is clear that the way forward for his sport must involve more initiatives like it and more clubs actively encouraging participants from a BAME background. His own club, Molesey, wants to take steps in that direction.

Sbihi also mentions the work done by Fulham Reach Boat Club, a charity with the aim of ‘unlocking the potential of young people through rowing’ and which puts 1,000 state school children a year on the water, 64 per cent of whom are from a BAME background. ‘It’s one thing to say that you will work with whoever comes through the door,’ said Steve O’Connor, FRBC’s chief executive, ‘it’s another thing to actively go out and find them.’

O’Connor has identified three areas that need to be addressed: the under-representation of BAME athletes on the National Team when compared to the UK population and so a lack of role models for the BAME community, the under-representation of BAME coaches and the fact that there are very few programmes looking to widen the base of participation.

‘If the main bulk of clubs in the UK don’t see this as a problem that needs to be solved then little will be achieved,’ O’Connor says.

Sbihi says: ‘From the top down and the bottom up we all know we have to make a change and we want to. Rowing needs to improve opening pathways and success stories for kids of a normal school background that go on to achieve great things at the Olympics. Open those corridors up by having some very challenging conversations and open up pathways and initiatives.

‘With my own club, we have a little bit of funding that we are going to try to go into secondary schools, take a bunch of ergos, a six-week programme, teach some kids who have never rowed before on a rowing machine and say “if you like it, we will have an open day for you at the club”.

‘That is something I need to get better at. If I were to go into my old school now, I don’t know how I would interact with the kids there because I have been around a society for the last 10 years of my life that is very different. I have a very different vernacular, tone and perhaps even a different accent than they would be used to.

‘We need to create opportunities for kids who would not be exposed to rowing. Until we have a success story that is then promoted and published, we are never going to change the narrative that we don’t have a black rower that has been to an Olympic Games and has been successful. When we do have that success, we can show there is a pathway for black kids to follow.’

The practice of sports teams ‘retiring’ numbers of famous players is an annoying gimmick at the best of times but Birmingham City’s decision that no one at the club will ever again wear the No22 after the departure of teenager Jude Bellingham for Borussia Dortmund wins the prize for gimmickry.

Bellingham is a fine prospect but he played 41 times for the club over the course of one season. In any case, retiring a number makes a player look bigger than the club. 

The best way to honour someone is make them part of a tradition, to allow them to aspire to wearing a hero’s number, not to retire that number.

I am pleased Jordan Henderson won the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year Award last week. Players inspire people for different reasons. Perhaps it is harder to realise in an era when we have so many statistics to hand, but sometimes it’s about more than just a number in a column.

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