When I was little, I used to dream that, for whatever sport had caught my fancy that week, there would suddenly be the implementation of mixed Ashes, or a mixed Rugby World Cup, or a mixed Boat Race.
Women (including myself, obviously), would play alongside the men, in front of the crowds, in the big stadiums, and it would be wonderful. These dreams had little do to with a pathological hatred of the sport of my own sex or even simply my competitive drive to be the best of everyone, but a lack of exposure to female sport. More specifically, a lack of exposure to the occasion of female sport. The first scene in Bend It Like Beckham, in which a young girl dreams of being the next big thing in male football, is based upon a need for celebration, recognition and the desire to be the best you can be. The Boat Race 2015, for the first time, gave this opportunity to female rowers.
To many people, the existence of a female Boat Race was practically unknown. The male Boat Race was a stalwart of the British sporting calendar, with entire families bleeding the blue of a university that they had no connection with, except on Boat Race Day.
For the students of Oxford and Cambridge, it was a chance to scream about your university to anyone who would listen, despite a hatred of the cult of rowing for the other 364 days of the year. Yet, for the women, this was not the case. Nobody came to Henley, the former location of the women’s Boat Race, to shout and scream. The BBC barely wrote a paragraph for them, and certainly no families developed irrational rivalries over which crew won.
Their race was confined to the insular rowing world, and to a thread on RowChat. These women, who had as little sleep, ate just as many raw eggs and trained just as hard as their male counterparts, got only the smallest fraction of the recognition. However, this year, they burst onto the scene, the jewel in the crown of Oxbridge rowing.
It was a shame, in a way, that Cambridge were not simply better, as the female races caused the BBC producers headaches fitting the crews into the same shot. Word in the media tent after the race was that the Oxford crew had been asked by the Boat Race company to lower their stroke rate once they got over a boat length ahead. But these were highly trained athletes and the spectre of Oxford powering off into the glorious afternoon was a sure vindication of the tenacity of these women.
Ultimately, what was presented was not only two crews for any Oxonian to be immensely proud, but also a team of women to envy, admire and aspire to. It is a rare event in sport that women get the same opportunity for occasion, yet 4.8 million tuned in to watch the first ever women’s Boat Race on the tideway.
To put this into perspective, the Wimbledon 2014 Ladies’ Singles final only attracted a peak of 3.1 million viewers. As former Dark Blue Dan Snow put it, “Most televised sport is a carnival of misogyny, so it is great news that the Boat Race is leading the way in ensuring that women take their rightful place alongside men”.
Doing a degree at either Oxford or Cambridge is hard enough, without doing a sport as demanding as rowing on top. From this year onwards, we now have the opportunity to marvel at the pure impressiveness of all of our Blues rowers, as we have for so many years at the men.
This is a year of equal opportunity, from the women’s Boat Race, to the move of the women’s rugby to Twickenham. But there’s still an enormous amount of progress to be made.
At the Boat Race weigh-in, Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Asset Management and a tireless campaigner for female equality in the boardroom and on the sports field, spoke of the yawning chasm in funding for female sport. She pointed out only 0.7% of sporting sponsorship goes exclusively to women, a staggering statistic. Clare Balding, the star BBC presenter, perhaps put it best when asked why she had chosen to present the Boat Race over the Grand National this year, “I’m a firm believer in the importance of this for women’s sport, and for its repercussions to business, society and inspiring other female athletes.”
We can be proud that Oxford and Cambridge now lead the world on sporting equality and it’s even better that our women clearly have the competitive edge. They can only achieve true equality if we give them as much support as a university as the men’s team have received in the past, and let’s be honest, it’s nice to have every opportunity to watch the Light Blues lose.