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HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England (Reuters Life!) - State-sponsored Olympians and other elite athletes are squaring off against gritty amateur challengers in front of thousands of champagne-fueled spectators this week at the Henley Royal Regatta.
The glittering jewel of amateur rowing is also a fixture of the British summer season and mixes society hijinks along the banks of the River Thames with the hard graft of an unforgiving sport, whose roots stretch back to a maritime past when Britannia ruled the waves.
"It's the equivalent of Wimbledon in the rowing world," said Fiona Knights, a keen sculler, coxswain and annual Henley visitor.
Her husband Paul has rowed 10 times at Henley and still comes back every year to soak up the atmosphere among friends and former rivals in the exclusive Stewards' Enclosure, where the Pimms and champagne flows among the men in striped rowing club blazers and ladies dressed to the nines.
"The atmosphere is great and the fact that you can meet up with all the old boys is magic," Paul Knights told Reuters.
Established in 1839 before international or national rowing associations, Henley abides by its own rules for the sport, but attracts rowers from around the world and enjoys the recognition of rowing's national and international bodies.
"Henley is a pretty prestigious event," said 21-year-old New Zealand sculler Graham Oberlin-Brown, who alongside his three other crewmates has made it to the semi-finals in the challenge for coxless fours.
"There's nothing like this in New Zealand. It's not often you get to race in front of 35,000 spectators," Oberlin-Brown told Reuters down at the boat sheds alongside fellow crewmate James Lassche, 19, after a practice session.
Unlike the multi-lane courses at the Olympics, competitors at Henley race only one other boat a time in knock-out heats along its 1 mile 550-yard course, a bit longer than the standard international distance of 2,000 meters.
Off the water, competitors and spectators must adhere to the strict rules that have traditionally governed the dress and comportment of the British upper classes at play.
Guests and members who are admitted to the Stewards' Enclosure, where there are grandstands, deck chairs, bars and restaurants, must dress the part.
"Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, and a tie or cravat," say the instructions on Henley's website.
"Ladies are required to wear dresses or suits with a hemline below the knee and will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind."
Ladies are also encouraged to wear hats and chancers are told in no uncertain terms that journalists, jeans, shorts, the use of mobile phones and children are strictly prohibited.
What is allowed at the enclosure near the finish of the course along the banks of the River Thames over the five days or Henley is a keen interest in rowing, good social skills and the capacity for long days in the sun picking out the best of the competitors on the river.
This year, the Princeton University crew appear to be a favorite among the crowds.
There are 19 events in total, comprising challenges for crews of eight, four, two and single sculls.
Henley's international popularity draws competitors from rowing nations across the world. Recent years have seen competitors from Australia, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Poland, the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, South Africa, Slovenia, Greece, Bulgaria and New Zealand.
This year, the first Chinese rowing team in Henley's 170-year history has entered the fray, pitting crews from Sichuan province against the best in the rowing world, including amateur crews with the pluck and fitness to get into the regatta through qualifying races open to any challenger.
But the greatest glory of Henley isn't so much the champagne at the bar, picnics along the river or golden youth fresh from their Olympic wins as the combination of a regatta that mixes one of the most desired trophies in the rowing world with an annual celebration that the rowing fraternity attend in earnest.
Ian Watson, who comes from a celebrated Cambridge rowing family, has rowed here for the last 24 years, competed at the international level, won silver at the world championships and a final at Henley, said Henley remains closest to the heart of every top competitor in the rowing world.
"It's not the pinnacle of rowing," Watson told Reuters, "but I have to say winning here meant more."
The regatta runs until Sunday.
Editing by Steve Addison