The sweltering Saturday of fifth week was my first foray across Christchurch meadow to the Isis. I am obsessed by most sports, but rowing is a discipline which has never really tickled my fancy. The reasons for this are multiple. Maybe it’s because the head of my school boat club was an five-foot idiot who made up for his lack of height by bullying impressionable young boys. Or maybe because rowing is essentially extremely homoerotic. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good all-male snuggle, but the concept of eight men in lycra rhythmically thrusting back and forth is a bit much.
Also annoying is how quite so much time in Oxford can be devoted to talking about it. Team sports are so widely talked about because they are so three-dimensional, and not only on the field. Football, for example, offers a constant source of debate because it has so many facets – technical and emotional; economic and social. A friend of mine’s dissertation is based on the social implications of the rise of professionalism in football. I would hazard that an essay on rowing’s effect on society might not be an enthralling read.
I am not diminishing the athletic integrity of rowing. The reason I’ve strategically omitted is that I have neither the fitness nor the motivation to attempt such a physically exerting discipline. It is quite a feat that the prospect of freezing early morning training sessions appeal to anyone, let alone the hundreds that compete every year in Torpids and Summer Eights. With these thoughts swimming around my still addled mind, I ambled along the dusty trail to the Isis.
The Saturday of Eights must be the best attended sporting event in Oxford. As I rounded a corner was greeted by a (not very authoritative) gaggle of marshals and hordes of rowing enthusiasts. It was like being in a country where you don’t speak the language. “Bumping” I could just about manage but congratulations for “rowing over” were beyond me. I tried to join in by screaming “KLAAAAXON” at the top of my lungs as I walked past a troupe of particularly underdressed girls but they just looked at me like I was a nutter. It was a carnival of sorts and everyone seemed to be having a great time. The smells of sizzling beef wafted past as some complete mug of a promoter tried to sell free entry to Camera before 7pm to me. As I made my way to the boathouse it was pretty clear I wasn’t there as a spectator; I had come to sip a few Magners, catch some sun and support my friends who were running the boathouse for the day.
Rowing is a quintessentially Oxonian sport. Every boathouse displays histories dating back to an era where having a moustache and wearing a straw hat automatically made you a big name on campus. Its lasting success stems from our collegiate system. Everyone, from beginners to Blues, is encouraged to compete at Eights; it boasts a participation of sportsmen and women which no other occasion can challenge. But the real strength of the event is the college boat clubs’ desire to cater for their supporters’ every need. Every balcony was packed with people eating and drinking and, unlike any other sport apart from perhaps cricket, there was no real pressure to pay attention to what was going on. Everyone was content to leave me cynically moaning into my cider.
Part of me wishes that I found rowing interesting. Maybe if I actually tried it as opposed to formulating completely unfounded opinions I would be swayed. But I doubt it. The sport’s strength, at Oxford at least, is in its inclusiveness. On the river, there is a bikini-clad man for every die-hard Blue. Off it, there is little pressure to do anything except enjoy the day.