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The Great Britain women's quadruple sculls crew came up against the might of Germany on Sunday and, like most opponents, came off second best.
Since the event was introduced at the 1988 Olympics, the Germans have dominated it. East Germany won in Seoul, and the reunited country has struck gold at every Olympics since.
Guided home by Kathrin Boron, winning her fourth consecutive gold medal, the German crew kept that record intact, leading from beginning to end.
But the fact that Alison Mowbray, Debbie Flood, Rebecca Romero and Frances Houghton went into the final with a realistic chance of winning gold, and were disappointed to end it with silver just two seconds behind one of the sport's most formidable crews, illustrates how far British women's rowing has progressed in the past four years.
In Sydney, the British women's quad also came away with a silver medal. But that was an isolated success for the women's squad. Here in Athens, the quad's second place gave the squad their third medal from three finals following the pair's silver won by Cath Bishop and Katherine Grainger and the bronze of Sarah Winckless and Elise Laverick in the double scull on Saturday. The British quad has tended to win races in the final third, using the power of Houghton and Flood to pull them through. That is how they beat Germany by inches in a World Cup race in Lausanne this year.
On Sunday coach Paul Thompson decided to vary the tactics. But after 500m, his crew found themselves in fifth place, more than a second behind Germany, and had to revert to their usual approach. “We wanted to lay down the law in the first 500m and get out in front but when that didn't happen they had cool enough heads to turn it around,” he said. Britain moved through the field and by 1,000m were third. With 750m of the 2,000m remaining, they stepped up their stroke rate from 36 to 37 a minute to power past Australia and close the gap on Germany from three to two seconds. But they were never going to catch Borin and her crewmates who won in 6mins 29.29secs.
“I have mixed emotions,” said Houghton, who at 23 is the youngest member of the quad. “[Before the race] we were sitting there saying we can make this Olympic final ours whereas they [the German crew] have done it time and time again and know exactly what they are doing. But I still think we can beat them.”
In the absence of the German victors, the official organising the post-race press conference placed the four Britons centre stage and several times referred to them as the “Olympic champions”. For now, that is as close as they will get to that title but for a crew of which the oldest is only 24, there should be further opportunities to make that real.
Matthew Pinsent was even younger when he won his first gold medal at Barcelona in 1992. On Saturday, as a member of the men's four, he collected his fourth. The victory will be seen as vindication of coach Jürgen Grobler's decision to parachute Pinsent and James Cracknell into the boat in February once he decided that they were unlikely to win Olympic gold in the pair.
Yet some will see the decision as a factor in a poor performance from the men's squad the four was the only crew to reach a final and blame Grobler's strategy for destabilising the pair, the four and the eight who failed to even qualify for the final after winning gold in Sydney.
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