Given what they were about to do, four men that looked less like identical mountainsides than they really should, sat in two identical boats, ill suited to anything other than flying across still water at great speed. Neither pair looked at the other. They didn’t have to.
The Pimenows were as aware of the Landvoigts as the Landvoigts were of the Pimenows.
They were two long and hard kilometres, pulling with a studied and calm fury at over forty strokes a minute, away from the finish line in the 1980 Olympic coxless pairs final.
No-one else lined up mattered. Bernd Landvoigt, in front of his brother Jörg, looked at his feet, size fifteens if they were anything, in front of him, his knees bent tight in anticipation of that first crucial thrust. Nikolai Pimenow looked at his partner’s, his brother Yuri’s, back whose muscles twitched as a consequence of the years of hellish work that had lead to this race.
It looked like it should have cracked under the tension were the rest of it not so tawt. That back was like a longbow hewn of oak, drawn, ready to fire.
Up-river the cantilevered stand crowning this part of the Krylatskoye sports park was packed and buzzed excitedly with the chatter of expectant Russians and Germans. The Landvoigts were favourites and everyone knew it. The DDR were sweeping up gold medals in the rowing like they were trawling for sardines off the South African coast in June.
The boycotts of the Games didn’t matter. No American boat could come close to them anyway. Missing were two Norwegians, also brothers, but they wouldn’t hit their peak for a couple of years. They were almost untouchable.
They would never find themselves out of step. In coxless rowing a blink of an eye or a twitch of a shoulder done in defiance or by accident usually will mean everything falls apart.
It’s the same as in music. It’s best when you can rely on your brother.
Carlton and Family Man Barrett, for example, played as one. They were an entire rhythm section in its most literal sense. They were indivisible from one another, a section, first in the Upsetters and then the Wailers. There was a telepathic synchronicity between the bass and drums of the two. They were the occupiers of a natural musical spaciousness, they had a simplicity of movement, an innate understanding of knowing when one will go and the other can wait.
Listen to the original mix of “Stir it up”, the one before Chris Blackwell padded it out with all those poitless, noodling guitar solos to sell reggae to the American market. It is flawless, and was recorded in a couple of takes.
For they could communicate to each other without looking or making a sound.
But they were separated by four years. It’s still too much if they wanted to row as fast as these guys here, lined up, waiting to start.
The brothers Pimenov and Landvoigt, were only separated by minutes.
The best pairs of rowers have not only similar bodies. They’ve shared the same body at the same time. They were all twins, and as such were rowers of a staggering rarity.
They pull. Left hands mirroring right, right hands mirroring left. One port, the other starboard. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pulling on exactly the same beat. The arching of the back and the tensing of the thighs and the gritting of the teeth needs to happen at exactly the same moment innately.
They’d have one long oar each, reaching out way beyond what felt natural in a tiny, teetering, razor thin boat to start their stroke. They’d go as one, or the boat would wobble off its central line meaning the race would be already over before it’s really begun.
Nicolay Pimenow was born five minutes before Yuri in a Moscow hospital in 1958. Just two days after Nikita Kruschev became the uncontesable leader of the USSR. A thousand and a half miles away in another communist land the Landvoigts, Bernd and Jörg (born in that order) were already seven years old and had grown up in Brandenburg am Havel. As Sam Cooke once sung, they were born by the river.
And they knew the river as intimately as Mark Twain or Bruce Springsteen or Rat from The Wind in the Willows ever did.
The Havel is perfect for racing on. It is gentle and broad, and often placid. Though it remains powerful enough for the Spree to bounce back off it when they should be merging, like has happened in the last couple of summers because there hasn’t been enough rainfall.
The reversal of the flow of the Spree carries an almost biblical, ominous portent for those who don’t know these waterways well enough. Like it should be accompanied by a plague of locusts and rains of frogs. In 1976 it happened as well, but the blood red skies that accompanied the anomaly were just because of the coal dust in the air. It was a long, hot Summer.
The Pimenovs just had one problem in Moscow. The Landvoigt brothers were the best in the world. They were almost untouchable. Between 1974 and 1978 they won 180 races in a row.
They had sandy hair, a diagonal sash running across their white shirts that resembled the beautiful Peruvian kit from the 1970 World Cup, and could muster a burst over the last couple of hundred metres that was faster somehow, even than their start.
Where the Russians would move to their respective left and right when they pulled, the Germans would move back and forth like they were connected on a stick. And the Pimenows were under the weight of crippling pressure in their home Olympics. They had done the unthinkable a couple of months previously. They had beaten their rivals for the only time.
And it only made things worse.
The water should have looked like a mirror, the boat’s movement through it unerring, but it was choppier than it should be. The main stand was on the rowers left, the port side. There was a luminescent green meadow to their starboard, a road running through the middle with West German VW Campers driving along at the same speed as the the racers in the water.
The Pimenows came in silver, two long seconds behind the Landvoigts. The gap had remained constant through the whole gruelling race. Pull for pull, stroke by damned stroke.
At the end they could barely celebrate, none of them. They were spent. Broken.
In 1985 Nicolay Pimenow couldn’t even celebrate his world title. He’d passed out as he crossed the line and was in hospital as they gave out the medals.
Though his brother, of course, was there for him. He collected both. He would always be there to take the weight.