Olympic Rowing Rules and Scoring

Sculls and Sweep-Oar Boats

Men's olympic rowing 2012
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On the surface, Olympic Rowing seems to be an event that is simple to understand. Most would assume that a team (crew) of athletes paddle (row) a boat (shell) in a race and the first one to cross the finish line wins. To boil Olympic Rowing down to that simple formula would be to do one of the oldest sports a grave injustice. There are so many different facets to this sport that further investigation reveals the difference between each event is actually rather confusing.

Olympic Rowing Rules

All Olympic Rowing races are 2000 meters long. This is roughly equivalent to 1.25 miles. There are 6 lanes that are marked with buoys every 500 meters. Contrary to conventional thought, the boats in a rowing competition can change lanes as long as they do not interfere with other crews.

The boats are held and aligned at the start of the race to prevent a false start. Crews are allowed 1 false start each while 2 false starts for a single crew warrants a disqualification. Although rare, a race can be restarted if an equipment failure occurs at the outset of the race.

Depending on the number of teams in an event, boats compete in a number of different heats. Winners advance to the semi-finals. While the losers of the first round of heats do race again for a seat in the semi-finals. The gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded to the top three finishing crews of the 6 boat final race.

Olympic Rowing Event Criteria

To say that the terminology to refer to the Olympic Rowing Events can be confusing is an understatement. This is primarily due to the multiple ways that each event can be phrased yet mean the same thing. Basically, each event name contains 5 parts that tells you about how the shells (boats) are paddled.

  • The Number of People in the Shell: The first thing to look for in each event name is the number of people actually rowing the boat. It may say “double” or it may say “pair” but in either case it means 2 people in the boat.
  • The Difference Between Sculling and Sweep Events: Secondly, each title tells you how the boat is being paddled. In a “Scull,” each oarsman has an oar in each hand . If the word “Scull” is not in the name, then each person only uses 1 oar, which is known as a “Sweep” event.
  • Coxswain or Coxless: The third thing to look for is the word “coxswain” or “cox.” A coxswain is in the boat directing the rowers and steering the boat. So “Eight with Coxswain” means there are actually 9 people in the boat, eight with paddles and a separate person steering the boat and coaching the crew.
  • Men or Women: The last part of the event name tells us whether it is men or women rowing the boat.
  • Weight Classification: Lightweight signifies that male rowers must be under 72.5 kg (159 lbs) while the crew average must be 70 kg or less. Lightweight for female rowers means that no rower can be over 59 kg (130 lb) and the average of the crew must be 57 kg or less.

There is yet another way to distinguish what type of race is being contested through its name. You will notice that each race is distinguished with a number and a symbol in parenthesis such as (2x) or (4-). Very simply, the number refers to how many people are rowing the boat and the symbol tells you what type of race it is:

  • “x”: A “Scull” Race. Each rower has two oars.
  • "-": A “Sweep” race without coxswain (coxless). Each rower has 1 oar.
  • “+”: A “Sweep” race with coxswain. Each rower has 1 oar and there is an extra person to steer and direct the boat and the rowers.