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By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Team GB will have a target on its back as it fights to retain control of the medal table for a fourth consecutive Olympics, as rowing's powerhouses will be put to the ultimate test in Tokyo.
"More than any other Olympics it's kind of been really hard to tell who the top athletes are, because there it's been an extra year of changes, essentially," World Rowing's Communications Director Melissa Bray told Reuters.
For Britain, there have been significant changes since Rio. The main one being that their performance director of 21 years, David Tanner, stepped down in 2018 amid what Bray described as a process of "rebuilding."
Brendan Purcell, who stepped in after five years with British Triathlon, told Reuters he's taking the pressure in his stride after inheriting a team that's collected nine gold medals across the last three Games.
"I can only be myself and if I try and be Sir David I'm not going to do a great job," said Purcell. "I have to be myself and play to my strengths, which is supporting, enabling... David had a very much stronger leadership style, which was sort of more what I would say directed, whereas mine's more facilitative."
Carving out that identity is a tall task in a chaotic run-up to the Games where three crews failed to qualify for events in which they featured in Rio during last month's final Olympic qualifier.
British Rowing dubbed the setback the "Regatta of Disappointment" but Purcell put it down to unfortunate strategy rather than a lack of skill.
"It probably points more to the fact that you don't want to leave it to that last regatta," said Purcell, who said he eased the sting of defeat with a round of pizza and beer for his athletes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it difficult to gauge the competition beyond Europe, with some of the top performers from the 2019 World Championships, including New Zealand, Australia and the United States, out of reach.
"They took medals off us or medals in front of us in 2019. We still don't know where they are," said Purcell. "Maybe they won't beat us - but they could take medals off us (in Tokyo)."
As for a target on their back, Purcell isn't letting that notion rock the boat.
"I feel really more of a burden of actually, 'Am I putting in place, supporting, creating the right opportunity for the athletes to achieve?'" he said. "I believe we have the athletes and the performances to actually deliver medals."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Christian Radnedge)