Josh Bugajski launched an extraordinary attack on legendary rowing coach Jurgen Grobler after claiming a bronze medal in the men’s eight to close out a disappointing regatta for the British squad in Tokyo.
Grobler, who coached 20 Olympic champions to a total of 33 gold medals, stepped down after 28 years as chief coach of the British rowing team in 2020.
And following the worst Olympic return in more than 40 years, and the first Games without a gold medal since Moscow in 1980, questions were inevitably asked about the impact of his departure.
However Bugajski, who has an unusual background in rowing having grown up in a deprived part of Stockport, was scathing in his assessment of Grobler’s methods.
Bugajski, whose race was broadcast live on Eurosport and Discovery+, said: “I’m going to be brave and say something the crew don’t want me to say. I popped a bottle of champagne when Jurgen retired. I had three very dark years under him, I’d be coward not to say on behalf of the guys who are back home and didn’t make it onto the team and that got the darker side of Jurgen.
“Well done to them for putting up with what we put up with. We were made to jump through a lot of hoops that some people weren’t made to jump through. We suffered as a result, both mentally and physically.
“It’s the end of an era for British rowing but it’s the start of a much better era. We’ve had six boats come fourth, on the cusp of a medal, and we’ve had two medals. Come Paris we’ve got a lot of potential but we need to be honest about where it went wrong.
“I will admit (Jurgen) is a good coach to some people but there were people that he seemed to take a disliking to and what he did to them was destroy them, destroy their soul, destroy everything.
“He had complete power. If you didn’t get selected for a boat, your funding is never going to go up. I was pretty much broke for a year, my relationships suffered, my friendships suffered. Everything suffered, I’m very thankful to have a wonderful fiancée and family back home who have looked after me whenever they can.”
That Britain struggled in Tokyo, with just one silver and one bronze, should not come as a complete shock, regardless of Grobler’s absence.
They arrived in Japan having failed to win a world title in the intervening five years and that was a trend that continued as boat after boat finished fourth – six in all.
And Bugajski believes the problems had set in before Grobler’s departure, rather than simply being a result of his absence.
He added: “There will be a lot of speculation as to whether Jurgen’s leaving caused the issues, I think the issues had started long before that. The results in Linz (World Championships in 2019) were no more impressive than the results here considering the strength of the other crews and the results here, in the four, the pairs, the eights, everything else.”
It was a remarkable outburst from Bugajski, revealing the darker side of rowing, in which Britain have enjoyed unprecedented success in the last three decades.
And while the majority of his teammates have come from quite privileged backgrounds, he explained just how hard it can be for those without a financial cushion on which to fall back.
He added: “We’re very vulnerable as athletes. Your funding is based on performance, decisions over you are made by people above you. You never feel like you are grounded.
“We can’t get away from the fact that it’s quite a middle-upper class sport and I think my position would have been fine if I’d had family living nearby or a bit of money but my case in particular, and some of the other cases in the squad are very different from that. Not having a safety blanket to wrap around is very tough. Sometimes I think that needs to be recognised in the sport.”
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