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Boaties at Oxbridge: The Cambridge and Oxford Boat Race
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2009-03-29 12:49:59
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On Sunday, March 29, Oxford and Cambridge will do battle for the 155th time on the waters of the Thames.  The occasion, one of the more known sporting events between rival universities, is the Boat Race.  On March 12, 1829, Cambridge issued a challenge to Oxford, giving birth to a tradition hatched in the minds of Charles Wordsworth (forever known as nephew of William Wordsworth), and Charles Merivale of Cambridge.  With some initial irregularities, it has proven a frequent fixture in the calendar of both institutions.

As always, you expect an ample body of material on this subject, whether at a museum or within an archival vault.  The race is also honoured by a website, and a chronological list of important dates supplied.  Kindly for race boffins, the site also features a timer to the ‘next race’. 

For the statistics buff, a few choice bits can be found: which year fielded the heaviest crews, when the crews sank, the first time a female cox was used (Sue Brown for Oxford in 1981; for an ever ‘progressive’ Cambridge, it was Henrietta Shaw in 1985) and who presented the trophies on the day.  Royalty, somewhat inevitably, feature at stages.

Gone are the days when the Oxbridge boatie boasted the intellectual capacity of his oar and equipment, a fine sampling of chauvinist British manhood equipped to police the administrative outposts of empire.  Sharp scholarship was secondary to aptitude on water or pitch.  ‘He was a fine oarsman and cricketer,’ and that was all that counted.  Meritocracy could well go and hang.  That tradition has changed somewhat, though it was one that also went for many students, who could get by with Gentlemen Thirds and still boast they had been to inimitable institutions of ‘learning’.  

Modern crews feature an array of attributes, and gone is the amateurish spirit of old.  Internationally recognised oarsmen are common, both from Britain and overseas.  Olympians are a not infrequent sight amongst the boaties.  Some argue that the introduction of sponsorship for the race (Ladbrokes in 1977) made it inevitable that standards would change.  With money came the chance to hire coaches of standing, with an array of support teams to match.

The occasion itself is hardly worth watching on site.  Anywhere upwards of a quarter of a million spectators gather on the Thames Banks from Putney to Mortlake on the day.  A few minutes on the water, catching the straining crews, and then the noise of whooping supporters, lubricated by overly-priced drinks, do little to make the occasion enjoyable.  The various pubs on that side of the Thames make a killing.  The spectators, crowding like lice on an ill-fortuned scalp, can only hope to catch the race on a big screen which they might as well have done at home. 

Oxbridge alumni the world over are seeking venues to watch the race, hopefully on a cable channel at a respectable watering hole.  Cambridge is ahead of Oxford in the race tally – only just.  But to most, it will simply be another vestige of empire, championed by sweaty, well-built men with a penchant for Spartan rituals of self-punishment.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Alexander Mikhaylov2009-03-30 06:59:32
'But to most, it will simply be another vestige of empire, championed by sweaty, well-built men with a penchant for Spartan rituals of self-punishment.'
Empire, races and so on...huh? This is simply politicaly incorrect and should be banished altogether!

John2009-03-30 09:15:05
It depends upon your politics as to whether it is politically incorrect.

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