A clean sweep for the Cambridge crews – for the second year in a row
The Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race is a varsity tradition that stretches back to 1829; the women’s race was included for the first time in 1927 and the reserve races were added in 1965 and 1966 respectively. Yet despite its relative youth in terms of the Universities’ various historic legacies, ‘The Boat Race’, as it is infamously known, is firmly cemented in the British public’s perception of these elite institutions and both physical and virtual viewing figures attest to this fact. In terms of sporting achievement, Cambridge have won an impressive majority of 84 of the total races, and hold a number of records across the years – largest winning margin; greatest number of reserve wins; and fastest course speed among others.
Of course, with any great tradition of Oxbridge comes a fair (and often deserving) amount of criticism and The Boat Race is no exception. There has been significant debate over the stature of the race compared to other major sports events in its media coverage – particularly the fact that it’s available to watch live on BBC 1 – as well as the discourse around the inherent privilege that accompanies participation in a sport such as rowing, that requires a dedication of time, money and energy that is simply not accessible for many. Nonetheless, to the 6.2 million who turned on their TV set to watch the men’s race in 2016 (and the none-too-paltry 4.2 million who watched the women’s race) and the several thousand that throng the river banks every year, there is enough prowess and professionalism on show to invite spectacle of a race that has been recently described as “a cup final where the same two teams reach the final each year”.
Having travelled in on a succession of Overground, Underground and bus transport links, it was with some excitement that this Editor reached the river bank in the centre of the 6.8 kilometre course. From the view of a perfect perch on the wall of Hammersmith Bridge Road, the River Thames tideway stretched out in all its watery glory in both directions. From some spots on the winding course, the view can be limited, but the trick is finding a spot with the most panoramic view to enjoy the longest moment of the race possible.
There’s a comfortable carnival air to the whole affair: local London boat clubs have opened their doors to offer jugs of Pimms and pints of lager, and people are milling around the doors of pubs and cafes as well as appearing on balconies several stories up. Despite the greying air, the rain holds and the perhaps 30 second snatches of speeding boats to be caught across the river are raucously accompanied by whooping, cheering and shouts of encouragement.
This year, Cambridge took a clean sweep of all 4 races, winning both men’s and women’s race by significant leads. The Cambridge women beat Oxford’s by a significant 13 second head, and the men by 4 seconds, with the reserves in similar figures. Testament to the dedication and training of all members of both teams, the races went off without a hitch – apart from a potentially contestable oar clash at the start of the men’s final race that luckily smoothed itself out – and there was much celebration at the awarding of the trophies, with champagne and group hugs.
The Boat Race may be a relic of a time long past, and that critique is more than valid through the lens of current conversation around privilege, access and innovation. More work is definitely needed to open the doors of these Universities and break down the barriers to higher education, and the damage of an elitist reputation maintained by events like these is undeniable. However, while this work goes on in the everyday lives of student activists and continues to push for change, The Boat Race is a day trip worth the walk around London and a chance to show some support for some truly talented student athletes.