It doesn’t take much to make me cry. Adverts with babies in them. Weddings. Jerusalem. Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys. Even, on one shaming occasion, Neighbours. And then, of course, rowing. At least in this last category I’m not alone – and (unlike with Neighbours) I feel no shame about being reduced to tears by our noble sport. This morning, as heroic Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter limped from their boat, heads bowed, pain and disappointment and exhaustion etched into every feature, it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by their courage and grief. Presenter John Inverdale struggled to contain his emotions as the pair headed sadly away. “There’s a lot of emotion…” he croaked, his face starting to crumple.
What is it about rowing that makes grown men cry? It’s partly the physical pain. At the end of a race, everything hurts. Your lungs are bursting, you can taste blood in your mouth (or is that just me?), your legs are burning and you are utterly spent. And if all that effort has not produced a win (and when it comes to losing races I consider myself something of an expert), well, you just feel like a lesser person. All that training – the hours of erg torture, the hours on the water, the blisters, the track bites, the sacrifices – all for nothing. Yes, if you’ve given it your all (and what rower doesn’t?) and had a “good race”, you can console yourself with that. But you still feel smaller than before you began. And often, yes, you feel like crying. If it’s like this for a club hobby rower, how unimaginably worse must it be when it’s your whole life? Of course, a silver medal is a massive, awesome achievement. But – as their stricken faces showed – it’s no substitute for a gold.
On the upside, though, when the win comes it’s just glorious. Who will forget the face of GB’s Kat Copeland as it sank in that she’d won an Olympic gold medal in her first senior event? There, too, there were tears, but this time of joy. And as the fabulous Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is mah favourite emotion”.