As traditional as Fish and Chips and Cream Teas, the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities is celebrating its 161st competition on April 11th and will be watched by over 250,000 spectators lining the four mile route along the Thames, with at least another two million watching worldwide on TV. The side-by-side rowing competition between the Dark Blues (Oxford) and Light Blues (Cambridge) has seen its fair share of controversies, sinkings and disruptions and these just add to the overall drama that fans of the event love.
Back in 1829, two old Harrow school friends; Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth, challenged each other to a boat race with each representing their university; Merivale for Cambridge and Wordsworth for Oxford. Racing along the river at Henley-on-Thames, Cambridge lost and the next race was not held until 1836, relocating to London, where it is held to this day.
What makes the Boat Race stand out from rowing events across the globe is that each team of eight, plus their Cox, are usually amateurs. They are all full-time students at their respective colleges. Oxbridge prides itself on academic prowess above all, with sporting ability not considered during the application process, and sporting scholarships are not available in the UK. However, the training routine is very gruelling with participants training six days a week for six months, as well as completing their ordinary studies. These superhuman feats have lead to some rowers turning professional, including Olympic Gold medalists Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster, Ed Coode, Kieran West, and Luka Gruber. Others have had success in other fields, most notably actor Hugh ‘House’ Laurie, who rowed for Cambridge, winning in 1980.
Sometimes the desire to win can lead to controversy, the most famous being the Oxford Mutiny of 1987, where a number of professional American rowers were brought in to participate. Disagreements over placing and training led to the Americans walking out on their Oxford teammates, their places going to members of the reserve team instead. Newspapers had a field day with the whole event, famously summed up by the phrase ‘When you recruit mercenaries, you can expect some pirates.’ Surprisingly, the plucky team still managed to win that year, despite Cambridge being the favourites. The story was told (admittedly a little one-sidedly) in the 1996 movie True Blue.
The race has been disrupted by the two World Wars and the forces of nature – high winds and rain causing one or both teams to sink – but the most infamous disruption came in 2012 when a protester swam between the boats. This started a chain reaction of bad luck that involved restarts, clashing oars and lost blades, ultimately ending with Oxford’s bowman collapsing from exhaustion. The most notable positive event of this century that happened in 2015, with the Women’s Race occurring on the same course on the same day as the men’s competition for the first time in the Boat Race’s history. This monumental event gives everyone at Varsity a particular sense of pride as our Programme Directir, Erin, who previously coxed the Oxford Women’s Team to victory in 2014, had the honour of waving the finishing flag in 2015.
On television. That is unless you are willing to brave the immense crowds the race attracts! The event has become an Easter tradition with pubs and restaurants with a Thames view usually fully booked months in advanced or packed to the rafters. Special viewing platforms and vantage points have been created to deal with the numbers, and two special festivals (at Bishop’s Park and Furnivall Gardens) will provide spectators with entertainment throughout the day.
What started as a spirited but friendly competition between two schoolfriends has evolved into one of the most famous rowing events in history!
See you on the Thames.
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