The Boat Race – Oxford’s grievances shouldn’t demean Cambridge efforts

Ollie Guest, Sport Co-Editor 10 April 2012

Over twenty-four hours on and the storm from the Boat Race showed little sign of settling. The ridiculous antics of Trenton Oldfield were plastered all over the Sunday papers as reporters tried to make sense of the ludicrous stunt. Against this backdrop concerns for Oxford’s bowman Alex Woods continued to dominate the minds of the competitors.

The controversy will remain until next year and sometime after that. Should the race have been re-started? Why did umpire John Garrett feel the need to take the boats back up the river along where they had already rowed? Does the ease with which Oldfield infiltrated the course raise concerns about the Olympics later this year?

Amidst the entire furore, though, nobody seems to want to do anything except complain and criticise. Such is the way of the British press, never keen to write a positive word. Many hacks are no doubt happily sniggering that the country’s two most prestige universities have suffered such embarrassment given the continued perception of elitism that is associated with Oxbridge. After all, how could either side justifiably celebrate such a hollow victory in these circumstances?

Originally I was similarly minded. I was going to outline why the race should have been declared null and void, or re-run at a later date. And then I read a sentence that struck a disconcerting chord, a sentence which alleged that Oldfield wanted to stop the race. That was his aim. He wanted to ensure that the whole event was cancelled. And the more I got thinking about it, the more I was glad that Garrett had the guts to continue the race.

As much sympathy as I feel for Oxford and the tortuous emotions they must be suffering the race was not lost merely because of Oldfield’s intrusion. The race was lost and the spectacle ruined because the boats were too close together, a responsibility of the coxes.

Time after time from the start of the competition it was the Dark Blue crew who were being told to pull away, that they were the ones infringing into Cambridge territory. Every year spectators watch aghast at how close the crews come to colliding. Every year the umpire tirelessly warns both sets of rowers and coxes to watch their line.

Amongst the whirlwind of emotions there is the tantalising pondering of what would have happened had Oldfield not so rudely interrupted what was shaping up to be a thrilling encounter. One train of thought questions whether a collision was inevitable.

In such a tight affair the teams were inevitably going use every miniscule advantage as they vied for position. Oxford were warned constantly about their position, as were Cambridge. Garrett’s decision to push on with the race after the smash was that of a strong minded individual, willing to stand by his decision. He had told Zoe de Toledo, the Oxford cox. Even as the oars crashed together he was telling Oxford to pull aside.

Maybe the boats did begin too closely from the re-start. Perhaps the race should have been re-run at a later date. But Woods and co shouldn’t have been forced into the position where they felt the need to push themselves so furiously in a futile hope of catching the Light Blues.

Given how strongly Oxford evidently felt about the incident, why didn’t de Toledo stop the boat? Why not call the crew in and ridicule the umpire’s decision by refusing to compete any longer? Had they done that, would Garrett have changed his mind? Maybe not, but he would have considered their appeal more thoughtfully. Was there just a hint of acknowledgement, just an iota of self doubt in de Toledo’s decision to continue to push the crew to achieve the impossible?

Oxford have every right to feel aggrieved about the way the race went. They have every right to be disgusted about the actions of Oldfield and the manner in which he ruined the seven horrendous months of unimaginably intense preparation.

But they shouldn’t use Garrett as another scapegoat. If they were so appalled at his judgement after they lost an oar, they should have stopped competing. His original decision to continue the race mocked the attention grabbing antics of Oldfield; it proved that he was not willing to submit to the smirking villain who wanted to destroy what remains a remarkable amateur rivalry. Garrett could do nothing about the collision except stick to the rules, no matter how his empathy may have cried out for a different decision.

Had both crews gone on to continue the race in the manner that they were doing before the incident, the idiocy of Oldfield would have been countered by words of admiration and amazement. How incredible, the papers would have said, that the two crews could continue physically and mentally to fight on.

Oxford didn’t deserve to lose, not like that. But that doesn’t mean to say that Cambridge didn’t deserve to win. The circumstances of victory were primarily subdued because of concerns for Woods, not because Oxford had lost by virtue of losing an oar. Secretly there may have been a slight niggles for the Light Blues about what went on but these could easily be quelled by the observation that they stuck to their line, that they were the ones staying in their correct position.

Whatever decision umpire Garrett made after Oldfield’s theatrics was going to be torn to shreds. Any ridiculous desire to suggest his Cantabrian past resulted in bias can be refuted by the fact his assistant, Olympic champion and former Oxford student, Matthew Pinsent didn’t say anything. He wasn’t afraid to speak up when observing Oldfield and given his heritage it is hard to imagine that he’d have been silent had he felt a severe injustice had been done.

Sadly the winners of this year’s race were never going to be granted the praise they deserved. Whether it was finished on the same day or postponed to another occasion, there would always be arguments. What is important to note, though, is that the race was completed. That in itself humiliates Oldfield, the fact that he didn’t stop the competition.

For all the understandable anger from the Dark Blue quarter they shouldn’t demean the Cambridge crew. By all means feel cruelly treated but at least recognise some responsibility: minus an oar the crew didn’t have to row on, they knew that they couldn’t catch Cambridge. Why not stop dead where they were? That would have sent a stronger message than a vain chase which endangered the well being of their crew, heightening their raw emotions to fever pitch.

Ollie Guest, Sport Co-Editor