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Feeling Blue? A deep-dive into Oxford sport

“You leave Oxford with a First, a spouse, or a Blue.” The latter of the three, a Blue, is the highest honour granted to individual sportspeople at Oxford University. It is highly prestigious and sought-after. With its history tracing back to the early 1800s, its relevance in Oxford students’ day-to-day lives, social activities and career prospects cannot be understated. However, this elusive award and the culture revolving around it remains largely unknown to the average Oxfordian, despite numerous Blues being awarded every year. You have probably seen them, without fail every Wednesday night frequenting the Parkend’s Tiki Bar in classic social attire, leaving many to question what sporting prowess has given awardees the right to wear the notorious dark blue blazer? What does one have to do to get hold of one?

What is a Blue?

Coming in a few variations, a Full Blue, a Discretionary Full Blue, or a Half Blue – a Blue is an award handed out as an acknowledgement of achievement within a sport.

The term “Blue” can be traced back to the early 1800s from historic sporting fixtures between Oxford and Cambridge. In the boat races between the two boat races, the first one being in 1829 over Hengley Bridge, a Cambridge oarsman tied light blue ribbon to the bows of the Cambridge rowing boats to represent the colours of his school, Eton College. A dark blue colour was then ascribed to Oxford, as the colour of Christ Church College, and the Oxford crew sported white jerseys with dark blue stripes during the race. These colours, and the merit associated with them, still exist today. Indeed, those who achieve a Blue are entitled to wear and show-off these colours in their blazers.

Further, the start of the Oxford-Cambridge competitive “Varsity” match tradition can be traced back to June 1827. This is when the two universities challenged each other to a two-day cricket match at Lords. Nowadays, Varsity games often attract huge student and alumni crowds. This can be seen through the annual boat races and the rugby matches played at Twickenham, engaging an over 20,000+ strong crowd.

How to get a Blue

The ability to obtain a Blue (Full/Half) depends on the status of each sport. Traditionally played sports such as football, athletics, and rowing allow for Full Blues; while more fringe sports, such as clay pigeon shooting, only allow Half Blues to be attained. The criteria for attaining them also differs between sports, mainly due to the measure of success in each sport differing itself, and often between their men’s and women’s teams. In Hockey, for example, Full Blues are awarded to the starting eleven  in the Varsity Match, as well as up to five substitutes in the Varsity Match at the discretion of the captain.

The awarding of this prestigious accolade and the management of the sports clubs is no easy feat and, like most things in Oxford, is governed by a committee. The Oxford University Blues Committee is made up of the current captains of the affiliated Blues-status clubs, alongside an executive committee made up of a President, Secretary, and Treasurer. As part of this, affiliated clubs must send one representative to a termly meeting and to those which review the status of their sport once every three years. 

While the specifics of each sport’s criteria are determined in these reviews, some general rules govern all Blues sports. Predominantly, no award (Full/Half Blues or first team colours) can be awarded to someone who does not compete in a Blues Varsity match. In addition, each team must clearly define what constitutes their Blues team in the Blues Varsity Match, reserves or substitutes who do not play cannot be awarded Blues, members of a second team or equivalent cannot be awarded a Blue and all awarding criteria must be met within the same academic year as the Varsity Match, being verified by The Sports Federation.

The Oxford University Blues Committee Constitution sets out other specific requirements for attaining a Full Blue. For example, the sport must be registered with the Sports Federation; there must be considerable College organisation, with recognised Colleges playing each other, and (not-surprisingly) there must be a substantial degree of athletic ability required. Additionally, adaptive or para-sports are still in their infancy at Oxford, with plenty of room to grow with support. Current high-level disabled athletes are able to attain a Blue but have to go through an “Extraordinary” route which is different to standard procedure. In conjunction with a Blue, a grant may be awarded to an exceptional sportsperson for future personal development. This may include new personal equipment, a training camp, or travel with a national team.

Life of a Blue 

Now that one knows a little more about the history of a Blue and how to go about getting one, we can proceed to delving in more deeply into life as a Blues sportsperson. For these passionate athletes, the process starts early. The previous Women’s Blues Football Captain, Jess Cullen, told Cherwell that “try-outs happen in freshers… generally we do a small section on skills and then go into matches. Choosing new players is a process all of the current players are involved in and we meet at the end of trials to discuss. In the end, the captain and coach choose the final teams.”

When asked about being able to manage an insane training schedule with rigorous academic work, Jess communicated: “I train everyday in some format except Saturday. Sport keeps me mentally sane and gives me a community, so I couldn’t not do it.”

Further, a current Amateur Boxing Blue and committee member reflects that while training is “hard work” with tough training sessions in the early morning and late at night, he enjoys balancing sport with his role on committee. This involves securing a new ring and investment for Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club, organising boxing events and an annual trip to Tenerife which provide a chance to meet and train with Olympians.

On maintaining a healthy sports-work balance, Men’s Blues Rugby Captain, Jack Glover, told Cherwell: “The academic pressures that go hand-in-hand with being a student at Oxford University are very important when structuring training and players’ workload. We are realistic in knowing that players will not be at every session, however, we try to adapt and be flexible to all their needs to ensure that they are getting the most out of being part of this club. As we are a player-led club, I feel as though we manage to strike an extremely well-balanced programme and that we are all very considerate to one another during term time.”

Jack added that matches are undeniably the highlight of being a Blue: “Some of our best matches include playing professional premiership rugby sides such as the Harlequins and Leicester Tigers. Other exciting games include those against the England U20s, an old boys team called the “Major Stanleys” – which welcomes back all OURFC alumni back down in Iffley. Of course, the big match that we look forward to is the Varsity Match against Cambridge. With so much history behind it, it is always one of the main highlights of any player that has represented OURFC.”

With post-match rituals often including beers and dinner with the opposition, karaoke and a trip to the Vincent’s Club – Blues matches, while unimaginably pressured, appear to always end well despite the outcome.

A Blue social life

Despite having a jam-packed schedule, for some reason, somehow, you will always find a Blues player out on a Wednesday night. Overlooking when strict pre-game drinking bans are in place, Blues sports culture is filled with events, socials, including crewdates at Oxford’s finest institutions Angrids or Jamals. While initiations are technically “banned” for many of these groups, the Blues teams don’t shy away from a vibrant social culture aimed at integrating all team members and other university sports teams.

The Vincent’s Club (Vinnie’s), is also regularly frequented. Pre-eminently a club for Oxford’s sporting elite, Vinnie’s was founded by Brasenose oarsman Walter Bradford Woodgate in retaliation to not wanting sporting matters being discussed at a suggested location, the Oxford Union. Woodgate famously said in reference to the Union, “I wouldn’t be seen there at a dog fight” and proceeded to select forty people (from the sportiest Oxford colleges at the time – Merton, University, and Brasenose) as original members of his new club. This was set up at the club house above the publishers at 90 High Street, named Vincent, and thus the club got its name. Intriguingly, the club only welcomed female members in 2015, only recently allowing the Club to more properly represent the finest sporting talent at Oxford. Part of the reason for the little change in ethos probably lies in the fact that while the focus has always been on sports-minded people, there has never been a sporting (Blues) qualification for membership. 

However, women empowerment in high-level sport does not get overshadowed. Atalanta’s is the leading society that promotes and supports the University of Oxford’s women in sport.  Founded in 1992, they now have a large network of resident members from over 24 different sports teams across the university, as well as a strong alumni database. Atalanta’s aims to recognise and foster the impressive achievements of sportswomen across the University, helping to inspire other hard-working, skilled and like-minded individuals across all sports. It promotes the development of sportswomen at all levels of University sport, through grants, scholarships and a vibrant social events calendar.

Members from the Oxford University Yacht Club (sailing) have told Cherwell that one of Atlanta’s dinner events was “very fun, definitely a bit daunting at first but once you get chatting to everyone, all very friendly. There were lots of different sports and different age groups, including a few alumni, and also a mixture of 1s, 2s and 3s sporting teams.”

Final reflection

With this whistle-stop exploration into Blues sport, it begs the question: are you feeling Blue? All you need is insane athletic ability, unwavering motivation and commitment, a capacity to drink your weight in alcohol and a love affair with Parkend. Easy stuff. 

Read Cherwell’s last reflection here: https://www.cherwell.org/2012/01/27/how-to-get-the-oxford-blues/ 

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