Originally created 08/07/03

Rowers try to stay afloat in Olympic test



SCHINIAS, Greece -- Test events for next year's Olympics got off to a worrisome start Wednesday when rowers tried to stay afloat as waves swamped boats and forced the U.S. team to swim across the finish line.

The eight-man American team abandoned its craft about 400 yards from the finish line of the 1.2-mile course, fearing the boat could sink with water filling the hull. The team swam across the line, towing the boat to remain in the competition.

"It was like you were rowing in the ocean," team member Stephen Newark said.

"We started going under and everyone said we should get off," American rower Justin Stangel said.

The World Junior Rowing Championships are among a series of important tests to assess any changes needed before the Athens Games. The competition was moved two hours earlier to 6:30 a.m. to try to avoid the winds that normally intensify during the day.

In the next race, the leading British eight abandoned its sinking craft and did not finish. The team will have a second chance to remain in the four-day competition in heats planned for Thursday.

"The race should not have been started because exactly the same thing had occurred in the race before," said David Tanner, manager of the British team.

Other teams, including Japan, rowed across the finish line in boats barely afloat.

Organizers held all the races but it was unclear how they would deal with the winds in the remaining days. Forecasts predict gale-force winds of up to 39 mph in parts of the Aegean Sea, which is near the coastal rowing center in Schinias, a popular windsurfing site about 18 miles from Athens.

Rowing's international federation called the conditions "very bad" but said the competition met safety standards.

"We are an outdoor sport and we must be ready to race in all conditions," FISA executive director Matt Smith told The Associated Press. "We did go to the limit and it's the most swampings we had as far as I know in my limited 20 years in international rowing competition."

Smith said FISA knew strong winds prevail around Greece every August, but the eight-day Olympic competition next August will offer more time to find acceptable conditions.

"For us, it was a great test because it showed us the worst-case scenario," said Vassilis Lykomitros, the rowing competition manager.

The potential for strong wind was just one criticism surrounding the Schinias site. Archaeological finds at the rowing center almost delayed construction after opponents launched a preservation effort for the antiquities and marshland.

More than 500 athletes from 45 countries are at the four-day rowing championship, organizers said. Germany's team withdrew after a number of its athletes were hit by gastroenteritis.

The venue also will host the canoe-kayak flatwater racing test event Aug. 15-17. The August test event schedule also features archery, equestrian eventing, beach volleyball, cycling and sailing.