When Australian Trenton Oldfield (surely a name destined for infamy) swam in the Thames, disrupting the 2012 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race as a protest against elitism in the UK, he faced much criticism. Though he narrowly escaped deportation after a prison sentence of six months, he maintains that he was right to “protest against inequalities in British society, government cuts, reductions in civil liberties and a culture of elitism.”
Oldfield’s actions were condemned from many sides. An Oxbridge rower on the day described him as “a mockery of a man” and the judge who sentenced him as “attention seeking”. But after being sentenced, his wife defended him, arguing that the Boat Race was a bastion of elitism and class division.
“Britain,” she claimed, “has convinced many that it is the home of democracy and the gauge of civilisation. Anyone living here today knows Britain is a brutal, deeply divided, class-ridden place.” Much as we might condemn Oldfield, there is no doubt that his criticism touched a nerve. Rowing as a sport is dominated by the white and middle class; a disproportionate number attended public schools that could offer them the expensive training facilities rowing requires.
Why do we give so much attention to a sport that is inaccessible to so many? Why is the Boat Race the highlight of the University’s sporting calendar, rather than football and netball, sports that are played by schools across the UK and are accessible to all? This issue received considerable attention following the 2012 Olympics, where it was noted that of the 10 gold medal winners, the split between state and private school educated was 50/50, whereas only 2/21 on the Great British football team were privately educated. The Boat Race’s place as the university sporting paradigm is a hangover of the Victorian elite that used to dominate Oxford. One can almost hear the Eton Boating Song floating across the breeze,
“Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest breeze,
Rugby may be more clever,
Harrow may make more row,
But we’ll still swing together,
And swear by the best of schools.”
Unfortunately, the Bullingdon club seemed to have crawled out of the woodwork, and although very amusing, Gavin Haynes’ report for Vice on the inebriated blazer-wearing supporters on the bank hardly improved Oxford’s image with the general public.
Why does this Oxford-Cambridge stand-off get so much attention? For rowing alone, there are other university races. Each year, Durham and Newcastle hold the Northumbrian University Boat Race, Edinburgh and Glasgow battle it out in the Scottish Boat Race, and various University of London colleges battle it out for the Allom cup, but these contests get very little public recognition. We should replace this outmoded two-horse race with a national universities’ rowing competition, and give a platform to non-Oxbridge student talent.
Which leads to the issue of how many of the rowers are actually students? We all know how it works. A significant proportion of these rowers are postgraduates, from American or Australian universities with incredible records in sporting achievement, who come to Oxford to do year-long courses specifically to take part in the boat race. The degree is a sideshow to their main focus, their sport. This professionalisation of sport, and the globe-trotting gladiators brought into perform, mean the boat ace is not really university sport at all. One of the members of the Oxford Women’s team had won silver in the World Rowing Championships last year.
The only remotely praise-worthy action of this year’s Oxford boat race was the parity between the men and women’s races. Both races were held on the same day, and received the same amount of attention, even if this happened several decades too late.
As Anna Reinicke, who competed in the Boat Race in 2004 and flew over from Hamburg to watch this year’s race told The Observer, “When I rowed, the men had nothing to do with us. Now we have equality.”
But this belated conversion to gender equality cannot save this outmoded institution. In its present format, the Boat Race is a load of rollocks.
The reasons why the Boat Race reflects well on Oxford and Cambridge are so many and of such a glaringly obvious nature that I fear to list them would be both dull and patronising. However, it feels sufficient to set out merely the most obvious.
It can certainly be argued that the standard at which the crews compete is proof enough that the Boat Race reflects well on our university. The standard is almost unbelievably high. I cannot think of any other university level sporting competition that rivals the Boat Race’s quality of athleticism. Both boats are bursting with Olympians, with international level athletes at the top of their game, choosing to come to Oxford to compete.
However, what is perhaps even more important in terms of how Oxford is perceived is the fact that this incredible level of sporting performance is achieved by individuals who are also engaged in obtaining a degree from Oxford. This must go some way to shattering the popular myth that all anyone does at Oxford is sit in libraries, as it reveals to the millions of watching public that the students here are a varied group and that not all of them fit the clichéd stereotype.
I know a good argument must include a rebuttal but I genuinely struggle to think on what grounds the Boat Race might be a negative reflection on Oxford. My only thought is that it might be argued that the Boat Race feeds the unhelpful belief that Oxford is full of out of touch and over-privileged upper class white males.
It might be thought that the supporters who partake in the celebrations on the riverbank do not do much to dispel this impression. This year a video by Vice entitled ‘Talking Politics with Drunk Toffs at the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race’ seemed to show that Oxford’s student body was still largely made up of ‘toffs’. I would agree that it probably isn’t great for Oxford’s image that its representatives are filmed emblazered and struggling to think of a single problem that effects their lives or enthusiastically endorsing David Cameron on the sole basis of him being a “good chap”. This video is, however, clearly not (nor is it intended as) a serious representation of the Boat Race and the Oxonians who attend it. Shark Tales has conclusively proved that is not difficult to find numerous students who are happy to say and do ridiculous things on camera once they have consumed some alcohol. This willingness to say the ridiculous combined with a little interviewee profiling, editing and the right questions make it easy to paint Oxford and its students in an unflattering light.
However, while it seems hugely unfair to say that the Boat Race propounds unhelpful stereotypes on the basis of the spectators it seems even more unfair to blame this on the sport itself. To say that rowing is elitist and antiquated may not be entirely incorrect. It is a sport that in the United Kingdom is only really available at very few, and normally fee-paying, schools. However, this is yet again not a problem directly related to the Boat Race. Oxford competes in a vast range of sports, so its choosing to competing in such an ‘elite’ sport and one in which it has a such a great history in should not be seen as contentious. Oxford’s rich history is one of its most positive characteristics and so long as it does it best to eradicate any harmful historic ideas it should be proud of this history.
This brings us to perhaps the strongest response to the nay-sayers. This year the University introduced women into the race, removing the anachronistic focus on men’s sports, as the races featuring both genders across the day were all given significant coverage. As a result, this year’s race showed Oxford at its best. Over the course of the day, one could marvel at the sporting excellence Oxford students achieve, whilst watching the University adapt to the modern world without losing a sense of itself or its history.