Monday, April 9, 2007

The Boat Race - mimitig

On a weekend stuffed with quality sport, like a turkey overflowing with pork and chestnut, cranberry and skirlie, and plain old sausage meat mixtures, we have the added fun of 2 boats from English universities rowing up the Thames for about 20 minutes.

Bizarrely this sporting endeavour, which is really nothing more than a personal rivalry between 2 institutes of learning who each claim to be the oldest in the land, garners a 2 hour television show, and a fair acreage of print in the quality broadsheets.

How and when did this come about and are there really so many people world-wide who give a damn?

Well, dear readers, you may be surprised to discover that I have no answers to this, just wild speculation and an imagination that knows no bounds!

I suspect, just a tiny bit, that corporate sponsorship - ie the unholy worshipping at the shrine of Mammon - and the seemingly endless internecine warfare between the BBC and ITV over sports coverage in general may be the main factors.

When I was a child, growing up in a university family in Oxford, the race was broadcast on BBC radio, and to be honest, I think the only people who listened were those who had some direct connection with either the oarsmen themselves, or the colleges they studied at. It was just a slightly more important event than the inter-college rowing competitions that take place in Oxford and Cambridge every year. The Cambridge one, I believe, is called The Bumps (though I may have been misinformed). The Oxford one is very confusingly called Eights Week, although it takes place in Sixth Week - took me years to understand that!

The years went by, the whole thing became more serious. Sponsorship was acquired and instead of just chaps who were at the universities and quite good at rowing being involved, colleges recruited overseas athletes specifically for their skills (academe taking second place sometimes to sporting prowess). The boats became loaded with Canadians, Americans, Australians, and even non-colonials: Germans for instance. British rowers able to find a place in the boat were Olympic standard and the television coverage began in earnest on the BBC. A few years ago ITV took over, and to my mind it is only since then that the fervour has been whipped up to today's extraordinary level, and I genuinely struggle to see why this should be.

You see, it's almost always a rather dull event. It's generally over by the time the boats get round the first bend and past Craven Cottage. That's approximately 3 minutes into the race. Mostly any excitement that ensues is if the weather is particularly bad and there's a possibility of a boat sinking.

And as if designed to prove me wrong, this year we had a very exciting race - up until the 10th minute when Cambridge went ahead, and because of the luck of the toss and being on the station that is favoured in the latter stages, that was it. Over - a Light Blue win.

So, according to figures I've found, approximately 400 million people will have watched that on global TV and 250,000 hapless sods will have traipsed down to the banks of the Thames - for 10 minutes of competitive sport. Still, at least for the spectators on the banks it was free, and they have not put yet more money into the corporate money safe.


Ebren said...

Cambridge is indeed called the bumps. And on the corporate front, I was shocked to see programmes on sale riverside this year.

But, I disagree. Recently the race tiself has become ever-more exciting as the crews become more evenly matched.

Also, if nothing else the occasion is fun and part of Englishness like the Grand National or Trooping of the Colour.

Zeph said...

The sponsorship is there, of course, no escape from it nowadays, but the sponsors aren't allowed to have logos on the boats or the teams' kit so it's not as bad as most sports.

I think you underestimate the place of the Boat Race in the national consciousness, Mimi. When you see old newsreels from early and mid 20th century, the race was always covered. People used to bet on it, like the Grand National, even if they didn't bet any other time of the year. My family followed it every year, when we had no connection with either university.

As you rightly say, it's got more and more professional now, with rowers who are already champions in other countries coming to Oxbridge to do degrees in land management and suchlike so they can take part. So it's become more like a pre-Olympic event.

But the race's unpredictability is its appeal, I believe - because it's more than 4 miles along the big bad tidal Thames, the currents and the weather really matter, boats can be swamped or sink, or a rower can collapse from exertion as happened a few years ago. It's the possibility of a drama that keeps people watching!

guitougoal said...

The drama that people are waiting to watch could be as follows:
the two boats sink, everyone has to swim to the finish line.The Oxford swimmers are hindered by Cambridge and there is a brawl in the water.Drama on the Thames.

offside said...

Any Polynesian rowers involved? Ever?

Zeph said...

Not as far as I know, Offside, but there's always a first time. Time to enrol at Oxford for a doctorate in Pacific Sports Studies, perhaps?

offside said...


I'm sure I'd enjoy the studying and some of the extra-curricular activities but I hardly qualify as a Polynesian rower.

How about an invitation to Oxford and Cambridge to take part in Hawaiki Nui Va'a next year? Three days' racing between Huahine, Raiatea, Taha'a, and Bora Bora.

If you can arrange the sponsorship and the logistics, you get to cover it for Pseuds'.

Zeph said...

It would be great, wouldn't it, but I wonder if the Oxbridge boys could handle the facing-forward thing? They might get all confused and go round the islands backwards.

Ebren said...

The waves might be more of a problem.

They normally like flat surfaces

Zeph said...


Perhaps the Polynesians and the Oxbridge boys too could meet and mingle at this one:

andrewm said...

It's really very simple - it's become a National Event. It's like the f'ing Queen's Speech and all that malarkey. People watch it because they think they're supposed to. I mean, who gives a toss who wins the London Marathon?

Also, people in this country like to watch what people who are better off than them are doing. This alone explains the popularity of the royal family.

Zeph said...

Yes, indeed, Andrewm, and we love to snoop around stately homes - hence the National Trust has more paid-up members than all the political parties combined.

Although, as we know, most of the Boat Race crews are Polish engineers or Canadian agronomists, I suppose there's a lingering, irresistible aroma of toffs at play..

stillunabletogetbackonGU said...

the way you list "Americans" among the non-non-colonials is very interesting.

as an inveterate Oxbridge-hater I'd love to see both sides end up as shark fodder.

what exactly do you mean by "this country"?


Zeph said...

... but mostly I think it's just fascinating because it's a bloody hard race and a lot can go wrong - cf the Grand National.

Ebren said...

Zeph -aAnd because of your natural affinity to the Coxes?

(that is a lot less dirty than it sounds, trust me).

Zeph said...

Yes, it must be genetic..

mimi said...

gg: Americans would still be British if the ref hadn't cheated in that silly old war!
andrewm: you sound quite republican there - I look forward to reading a piece from you about Polo and those other equestrian things that various members of the royal family excel at (nothing to do with their advantage of birth, obviously).
guitou: "two boats sink, everyone has to swim to the finish line".
Far better than anything I could of written!

andrewm said...

gg - most of England and areas of lowland Scotland, I think.

mimi - they don't get much more republican than me, I'm happy to say.

mimi said...

andrewm: my mother would probably challenge you. she once refused to go to an Oxford occasion because the Queen was going to be there, and mum couldn't bear being forced to curtsey to the monarch!

andrewm said...

mimi, well done to her!

I once refused to attend a work event that the Queen was going to attend, although I didn't tell my colleagues the real reason. They were shocked that I wouldn't want to meet her for ANY reason, so I thought best to be a coward about it.

miro said...

Is Thames water still topping the list of worst polluters in England?

Zeph said...

Miro, It depends what you mean by polluted.
Mostly the water is clean these days, but apparently they find one dead body per week in it, so draw your own conclusions:

mimi said...

But Zeph: i've heard they fish live trout and salmon from the London stretch of the Thames these days. (Smugly) we have very clean rivers here in Scotland!

Zeph said...

I defer to the angling experts amongst us (there must be at least one somewhere) but we are often told that the Thames is, yes, full of happy fishes these days. And the occasional whale.

tahitiwhale said...

We can't just be wallowing in the warm south pacific waters all the time, you know. One has to travel a bit and take in the culture...

guitougoal said...

COCKBURN Said.....any reference about whales are discriminative could be deleted. This is a friendly reminder.

Tweet it, digg it