“Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo

Left to right - Bjørn Borgen Hasløv, Kurt Helmudt, Erik Petersen and John Ørsted Hansen_gold medal coxless fours 1964
Left to right – Bjørn Borgen Hasløv, Kurt Helmudt, Erik Petersen and John Ørsted Hansen_gold medal coxless fours 1964

The coxless fours from Denmark were champions. While they won their heat quite handily, finishing more than five seconds ahead of their closest competition, the championship race was decided by slightly more than a second.

And yet when Bjørn Borgen Hasløv recalls that time in Tokyo in 1964, he doesn’t remember the pain or the tension. The stroke on the Danish team that pipped the Great Britain team for gold remembers that they were a young group of men who came together as a team.

“We were young,” recalled Hasløv to me. “I was 23, still not having completed my studies because I spent my free time rowing and had no time for other things. The youngest was 20, Kurt Helmudt, who was in shipbuilding. Erik Petersen, 25, was a plumber, and John Ørsted Hansen, 26, was a fitter, charged with steering the boat. It was important that we could tell if we were rowing together, not as separate people. You have to feel your team around you. If you don’t work together, 100%, you will never be fast.”

Hasløv said that his coach, Poul Danning, taught him (among many other things) that the sport of rowing requires individuals to find their role and rhythm within a boat so that all are in synch – for example if the strongest person in the boat pulls as hard and as fast as he can, the differences in power and speed with the others will actually slow the boat down as water resistance increases due to the differential. Legendary boat maker George Yeoman Pocock expressed this insight in this way – “It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend.”

Hasløv believes that his team worked so well together that the water was indeed their friend that day. “Everything was going to plan. We were concentrating hard on rowing together, supporting each other, finding rhythm in the boat. I didn’t feel the pain. I could feel the water under the boat, and it sounded like music as our boat was going perfectly. It’s a strong feeling. It’s a feeling that you control your body and you are a part of a team.”

My guess is that Hasløv was feeling what Pocock and other rowers call “swing”. Daniel Brown, in his wonderful book, The Boys in the Boat, about the American Eights Rowing Team that competed in the 1936 Olympics, described “swing” for an eight-man crew this way:

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. it’s called “swing.” it only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten at once. Each minute action – each subtle turning of wrists – must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation, rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.

Pocock again, is most eloquent: “Where is the spiritual value of rowing? The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.”

On that day, at that moment, Hasløv and his team found the “swing”, and emerged best in the world.

Here is color footage of the team from Denmark pulling out its victory over Great Britain.

Pathe Video of Coxless Fours Tokyo Olympics Toda Rowing Course