Boat Race rocked by protest and controversy

Boat Race Rip Off 7 April 2012

In the fine heritage of this iconic competition never has there been such a controversial race. Extraordinary scene after extraordinary scene unfolded with a rollercoaster stream of events.

Cambridge secured a comfortable victory after Oxford’s Hanno Wienhausen broke his oar in a dramatic collision – but this was only half the story in a surreal afternoon.

For just the second time in the 158 year history of this competition, the race had to be re-started when a swimmer, now named as activist Trenton Oldfield, swam up in between the two boats, intentionally interrupting the race.

Oldfield appears to have been protesting against elitism. In a blog entitled ‘ELITISM LEADS TO TYRANNY’, Oldfield wrote: “The boat race itself, with its pseudo competition, assembled around similar principles of fastest, strongest, selected …etc, is an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.”

Despite his criticism of “elite public institutions”, Oldfield was himself educated at the London School of Economics, where he gained an MSc in Contemporary Urbanism.

He appeared completely unrepentant for disrupting the race, smiling broadly as he was led away by police. He has since been arrested on suspicion of a public order offence.

But for the sharp eyes of reserve umpire and four time Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent and the quick thinking of the two crews’ coxes, there may have been disaster on the water this afternoon.

The Cambridge Student newspaper, just a few months ago, exclusively revealed concern for the potential disruption of this year’s Boat Race following posts made on an Anarchist Blog.

In further drama, Dr Alex Woods, Oxford’s bow and the oldest rower in the competition, collapsed in the boat at end of the race, apparently from exhaustion. Requiring urgent medical attention, he was taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where he is now said to be conscious and stable. The Oxford crew have been in to visit him though, according to Pinsent on Twitter, he “doesn’t remember anything past the restart”. Woods will remain in Charing Cross overnight for observation.

The crews were level-pegging before they were stopped, and despite the BBC’s assertions that Oxford were looking the faster crew at the interruption, this was shaping up to be the most thrilling race since the neck-and-neck finish in 2003.

Following the torrid journey back up the river to re-row part of the course they had already completed, the crews prepared to do battle again over half an hour after the shock interruption. Not only did they have to reset themselves mentally, but, as umpire John Garrett dictated that half the course had to be re-rowed, they had to hope that their bodies were prepared to complete a gruelling sprint finish.

Yet within the first thirty seconds after the re-start the race was over. Despite being warned numerous times about their line, Oxford strayed too far into Cambridge water, resulting in disaster as the two crews’ oars clashed. The result was catastrophic: the Dark Blue’s number five Hanno Wienhausen lost the blade from his oar, giving Cambridge an irreversible advantage.

Despite an appeal from Oxford for a re-row after a clash that left an oar completely useless in the Dark Blue boat, umpire  Garrett decided that Cambridge had won fairly. “The decision that I took is that crews have to abide by their accidents,” he said.

“It was clear that Oxford had come away from the clash much worse off than Cambridge had, but throughout I was comfortable with where Cambridge were on the river in terms of their station. Before the clash took place I was warning Oxford.”

The Oxford cox, Zoe de Toledo, left the course in tears given the devastation of the race-altering collision. “You can’t have a race that ends like that. I was steering as I saw fit,” she shouted at umpire John Garrett come the end of the race. Yet her protestations fell on deaf ears as Garrett stood by his decision, citing the number of warnings he had given to the Dark Blues.

Before the race, there had been much talk of the difference in weight between the crews with experts questioning whether Cambridge’s massive 62.8kg advantage was enough to overcome their ‘underdog’ status. Many thought that the Light Blues’ decision to row bow and stern on the same side of the boat in a tandem rigging system could prove to be their undoing. Yet after the initial stages of the race there was nothing to separate them, as both crews desperately tried to gain the upper hand.

Cambridge had won the toss, electing to row from the Surrey side where they would hope to use the long Hammersmith bend to their advantage. Having kept in touch with their opponents come this stage of the course it appeared that this tactic may prove beneficial but they were unable to pull away.

Then, just past the Chiswick eights, the race came to a dramatic standstill as Oldfield swam up next to the Oxford boat, narrowly avoiding being struck by the Oxford blades. Just as the race looked to be building up to a showpiece finish, the crews were forced to halt and turn back the way they had come and restart the race.

Amidst all the controversy, the atmosphere as Cambridge crossed the finishing line was subdued. Cambridge may have cruised to victory but their first thoughts were for collapsed Oxford bow, Dr Woods. “It’s a huge relief but it’s a bit shocking to see Alex in such a state,” said the dignified Cambridge President, David Nelson.

Nelson was clearly drained in the press conference, visibly shaking with a mixture of exhaustion and emotion. He described the race as “pretty bizarre”.

“We knew that unexpected things were going to happen and we were going to have to deal with adversity,” he said. “From all I could tell they veered in pretty sharply. Then there was a huge crash.”

Following the race, OUBC President Karl Hudspith tweeted: “Unfortunately I cannot congratulate Cambridge as they decided to mock us after the finish line, even though Alex had collapsed.”, but the tweet now seems to have been removed.

Nelson said at the press conference: “I feel bad, I guess, in finishing the race there was a lot of raw emotion and some of our celebrations might seem a bit unsympathetic in retrospect, but I wasn’t aware of the broken oar and Alex at the time. But in any case I thought the execution given the adversity was really good. I’m really proud of the team.”

In light of the concern for Woods’ health, the presentation ceremony did not go ahead as planned – London Mayor Boris Johnson had been due to present the winners’ trophy – and Cambridge’s celebrations at the end of the race were noticeably muted. Cox Ed Bosson, who turned nineteen just yesterday, was not thrown into the river as is customary.

Moritz Scramm, a Light Blue, was barely able to speak on the riverbank: “It’s not how I wanted to win that race. I didn’t want to win it against seven men,” he said.”I can’t give you a particularly intelligent answer right now. To be honest my mind is with that guy over there .”

Of Oldfield’s protest, Oxford’s Hudspith also tweeted: “Finally to Trenton Oldfiled (sic); my team went through seven months of hell, this was the culmination of our careers and you took it from us.”

Meanwhile, Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham was forced to apologise for an off-colour Twitter remark he posted immediately following the race’s interruption. Burnham tweeted, “I’m feeling a bit chilly after that dip – but worth trying anything to get destruction of #NHS some coverage on the BBC!”, but he later apologised for the quip, writing that he “had stopped watching when I sent that & only just heard the news. Hoping Alex is OK”.

Ollie Guest, Olivia Lee & Judith Welikala

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