Oliver Cook, Matthew Rossiter, Rory Gibbs and Sholto Carnegie react to their loss

Credit: Paul Grover for the Telegraph

The British rowing community has descended into rancour and recrimination after Matt Rossiter, a member of the men’s four, claimed that some of his illustrious predecessors in the sport would be “smug” at watching them fail.

One of the country’s great Olympic traditions came to an end here at Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway, as the quartet managed only fourth in a race where Britain had won five consecutive golds, dating back to Sir Steve Redgrave’s final triumph at Sydney 2000. Their attempt to sustain that streak ended in chaos, their steering going awry in the final 500 metres to drop them out of the medals, after they only narrowly avoided crashing into the Italians in the adjacent lane.

But it was Rossiter’s remarkable post-race comments that ignited long-simmering tensions around the national rowing camp, as the 31-year-old rounded on the four’s critics, accusing them of not wanting the team to succeed. He is understood to have been referring chiefly to James Cracknell, twice Olympic champion in the four, whose perceived criticisms of the crew he has called out before.

“It’s just disappointing that those people will be really smug now that they are part of the legacy that won,” Rossiter said. “That was a motivation to do well. I hope those people are happy we have not continued the gold run.”

There was incredulity among former gold medallists at the late steering malfunction, an almost unheard-of event in fours racing at this level. Cracknell was unsparing in his verdict, saying: “Someone in the British crew blew up. The only way your steering goes like that is when somebody totally runs out of juice.”

A key reason for the antagonism between men’s fours past and present concerns the departure last year of Jűrgen Grobler, who had mentored British crews to record-breaking success throughout his three decades in charge. The exit was curiously timed, just 11 months before these Games, and it has coincided with a precipitous drop-off in fortunes at this Olympic regatta. After four rowing golds at London 2012, there is growing concern about whether there will be any in Tokyo, after three fourth-place finishes in an hour for both fours crews and the men’s double sculls.

Garry Herbert, who coxed the Searle brothers, Jonny and Greg, to gold in Barcelona in 1992, was withering in his assessment of the British under-performance, a pill so far sugared only by a silver medal for the men’s quadruple sculls. “You do not allow Grobler to stand down a year before a delayed Olympic Games,” he said. “This, well, I’m almost speechless.”

Nobody was more racked with self-reproach than Rossiter, as the four fell painfully short of the standards set by their forebears. “It’s pretty rough to finish on that note,” he said, as the British found themselves squeezed out of the podium by Australia, their age-old rivals in the four, Romania and Italy. The Italians would have secured silver had it not been for the British boat’s errant steering.

“We fully biffed into them,” Rossiter acknowledged. “They are pretty p—– off, because maybe we cost them the silver. Sorry to those guys. It’s an outdoor sport and this stuff happens. It’s just heartbreaking when it’s you and not something on YouTube.

“It’s rough to finish on that note. Coming fourth is the s—— place in the world. We’ve done so well in the last two years and then when it actually matters, we f—– it up. That’s sport.” Perhaps so, but in a sport that has been such a mainstay of British goldrushes at recent Games, the inquest is only just beginning.