The Enduring British Tradition

Why the Boat Race still captures our interest almost two centuries on

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The Boat Race is a funny anachronism: a “private match” which is at once an adjunct to the competitive academic rivalry between two prestigious universities and an event which continues to attract a huge amount of public interest, be that as part of the nation’s sporting heritage or as an out-dated joke.

Either way, annually drawing crowds of around 250,000 people and, in 2016, a TV audience of 6.2 million people, the Boat Race is arguably the most high-profile rowing event in the British sporting calendar outside of the Olympics.

Almost two centuries of races between Oxford and Cambridge have generated a weight of history that adds a thrill of mystique to proceedings. But tradition alone does not fully explain the enduring allure of this annual event.

First, the Boat Race is rarely, if ever, boring, with enough broken and clashing oars, pain and passion, fortune and misfortune, triumph and tragedy, and occasional sinkings to satisfy even the most ardent of Titanic film fans.

In 1912, exceptionally poor weather led to both men’s boats disappearing below the surface and the race being abandoned. In 1978, Cambridge were on their way to victory when their boat started taking in water, sinking before the finish line and allowing Oxford the title. In 1980, Oxford’s bowman blacked out and collapsed during the race but the dark blues still beat Cambridge by a canvas. In 1984, the Cambridge men’s boat collided with a barge before the race had begun and sank, so the event was rescheduled to the following day. In 2012, a protestor swam in front of the boats as they headed into the final bend, and narrowly avoided being struck. The race was restarted. In 2016, the Cambridge women’s boat began to sink on rough water and Oxford stormed to victory by 24 lengths.

The list of these thrills and spills could go on as it is a quirk of the Boat Race that, unlike many other regattas, the event goes ahead whatever the weather. There have also been a number of surprises over the years, ranging from a variety of Oxford boat mutinies to the discovery of an unexploded WWII bomb in the Thames in the lead up to the 2017 Boat Race. However, it is the races that are most tightly contested which typify the dramatic excitement of this race.

No Boat Race was more controversial than the 1877 event: staged in shocking weather conditions, both crews were said to have finished in 24 minutes and eight seconds, with race judge John Phelps adamant that both boats had nosed across the finish at exactly the same time. Finishing posts were introduced the following year to avoid a repeat of such a result. There is also the small matter of the 2003 Boat Race, the closest in history, which Oxford’s men’s team won by 30 centimetres.

Alongside its many controversial and enthralling moments, the history of the Boat Race has a number of quirks which in part explain its enduring position as part of our national sporting fabric and heritage. The Boat Race first started in 1829 when Cambridge student Charles Merivale challenged his Oxford friend Charles Wordsworth to a river race involving crews of eight from their respective seats of learning. Oxford won the race in Henley-on-Thames and it would be another 27 years before the Boat Race became an annual fixture.

Not only is it amusing that the Boat Race was created by two students with the same name, but also it is this spirit of amateurism with no financial reward, which the Boat Race retains, that makes it such an iconic British sporting event. Indeed, the Boat Race is so deeply entrenched in the national furniture that it has entered Cockney rhyming slang (Boat Race meaning ‘face’).

Moreover, the event continues to draw interest since, over the race’s history, there have been some famous names wielding those oars. Actor Hugh Laurie was in the 1980 Cambridge crew, and historian Dan Snow was in the Oxford boat from 1999 to 2001. Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent rowed for the winning Oxford crew in 1990 and 1991. More recently of course, 46-year-old former Olympian James Cracknell became the oldest ever member of a Boat Race crew.

This is an example of how the Boat Race has moved on in so many respects from its portrayal by some as an irrelevant and defunct tradition. Seven of the GB rowers who returned from Beijing with Olympic medals in 2008 were Boat Race competitors. And as any bookmaker will attest after the weigh-in, the event draws interest and allegiances for Oxford or Cambridge from vast numbers of the public irrespective of whether they went to the universities or have any connections with them or the sport.

The Boat Race is also a great British tradition that deserves respect. Not only because it was established 43 years before the first FA Cup final and more than half a century before English and Australian cricket teams disputed the Ashes, but also because it is one of the more progressively conscious sporting events in the British sporting calendar. In terms of media coverage, the Boat Race offers complete gender parity unlike many sports on television. There is still a lot of work to do, however, in order to make the race and indeed the sport less elitist.

Finally, we must take a look at the perspective of a participant of the Boat Race to understand the event’s significance. It might seem to be about 17 minutes on the river, but for the participants, the Boat Race is a way of life for six months – and that does not even begin to cover the amount of time and effort dedicated to getting into the squad in the first place.  

The Boat Race is an extraordinary gamble as crewmembers give up virtually everything for six months to gain a winning Blue. Participants train like professional athletes for five hours a day, six days a week in wind and rain and hail and cold.

And all of this dedication hinges on winning and losing. The enduring allure of this event is that it is driven by the fact that everything is put on the line. Crewmembers often do not get the opportunity that professional athletes do – despite training like them – to make amends for defeats and mistakes. Victory or defeat, however fractional, decides how a crew is remembered. Victory might mean mission accomplished, but defeat might make one crew look as if they did not deserve to be there.

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