Monday, April 05, 2010

Messing about in boats

I've not posted for a little while because I have spent the past week on the Thames watching the crews prepare for Saturday's 156th Boat Race. You can read the match report here. It was a thrilling race, with Oxford almost pulling a length ahead of Cambridge by halfway before they were gradually reeled in and Cambridge pushed past to win by four seconds.

The Boat Race is one of the year's great sporting events and yet it is the one time of the year when I really regret having gone to Cambridge. The race always brings idiots out of the woodwork who want to run it down ("same two teams in the final again, ho ho") and it would be far easier to fight back against them without the reply that I'm just biased.

The most ridiculous charge is that it is "irrelevant" or, as one moron said last year, "a non-event". That can be easily countered. According to the BBC, the race was watched by 5.5 million in the UK this year (and many more around the world).

Looking at the banks from my launch in the middle of the river, there were spectators all along the four-mile course, sometimes standing ten deep. It has been estimated that 250,000 people watch the race live - which is about four times the number who watched Chelsea play Manchester United earlier in the day.

I'd say that those figures prove that whatever else you think, it is not a non-event. And they are not all ghastly Oxbridge types, either. In any year, there are about 7,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students at each university. If those who watched the race in person were just Oxbridge alumni, then you would have almost 18 full years of students in attendance. I'd say there is a fair amount of impartial support.

The main reason they come is to get drunk in the sunshine in a vaguely pleasant environment, of course, but the sport also draws them, even if they only catch a flashing glimpse of two crews passing by before dashing to watch the rest on TV.

There are few more draining athletic contests. The race is four and a quarter miles long, three times the length of an Olympic rowing final, on a course that bends, with the added attraction of waves and wind and freezing cold. There hasn't been a sinking since 1978, but that always remains a possibility and is another part of the attraction.

Those who reach the end in second place are shattered, physically and emotionally. They train for six months, six hours a day, every day, for this one shot at a place in history. And there is no money at stake, only fame (which is fairly fleeting) and the more tangible sense of personal satisfaction. There is no greater sign of what sport means to an athlete than to see a losing Boat Race rower at the finish, vomiting, crying and feeling totally empty.

But then the naysayers point to the lack of British undergraduates in the race. "It's no longer a pure student contest," they say, although the presence of world-class international rowers surely adds validity to this being top-flight sport. Anyway, the spread of nationalities and ages only reflects the make-up of the student bodies at these universities. And both Oxford and Cambridge say that rowers still need to deserve their place on academic grounds.

As for the young Brits argument, well look at the number of rowers who have gone on from this race to win Olympic medals for Britain. Three of the gold medal-winning four in Beijing had competed in the race in the previous four years. A couple of possible stars for the future were in Cambridge's winning crew this weekend. Remember the names Fred Gill and George Nash.

"Disgracefully elitist" is another argument, as if elitism is a bad thing. Of course, you would not create a competition now that excludes all but two clubs, but in the 19th century Oxbridge was pretty much all you had. I think it is wonderful that we cling to 180-year-old traditions like this. As long as the rowers continue to meet the academic standards, this is the very best sort of elitism.

Anyway, this is one of those arguments where people fall into prejudiced camps. If you believe it is a good thing, you'll agree with me. If you were opposed to it before, I doubt I will have persuaded you. But if you have never given this wonderful, shattering contest a look before, have a squizz next year.

As well as this year's result being personally satisfying as a Cambridge old boy, it was a rewarding afternoon because I took £70 off the bookmakers who had made Oxford strong favourites.

Quite what they were basing it on, I don't know. Oxford were a smidgin more powerful, but those who followed their preparations could tell it was always going to be a tight race. As the bookies never phoned to ask what I thought, I guess they set their odds based on who was betting, which just proves that Oxford alumni have done better out of the recession than their Cambridge counterparts.


Angus Donald said...

Congratulations on your win, Patrick – but what the devil do you mean by saying that in the 19th century "Oxbridge was pretty much all you had"? There were several other excellent universities then: namely the fine University of Edinburgh (which just happens to be my Alma Mater). Clearly you need to employ a decent sub-editor on your blog!

Paddy said...

You are quite right, Angus. The lovely Katherine Grainger, three times an Olympic silver medal-winner, learnt her rowing at Edinburgh and they have their own Scottish Boat Race with Glasgow, which has been going since the 1870s (50 years after the Oxbridge one). But I associate Edinburgh more with being one of the birthplaces of rugby (Edinburgh Academicals being one of the oldest clubs in the world) than rowing.