Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Boat Race

Despite the fact that London is to host the 2012 Olympics in a couple of years time it is not a city which one instantly associates with great sporting events. That said there are certainly some which make national coverage, even if not given airtime or column inches by the international media. We have Wimbledon tennis tournament; traditionally showery despite being held in the summer, fuelled by thoroughly British strawberries and cream, and Pimms (mostly consumed under vast umbrellas due to the aforementioned showers). We have thirteen professional football teams (Chelsea, Fulham, Arsenal and West Ham United to name a few), and I am informed by those who follow "the beautiful game" that some of them are world class standard. (Should anyone care, only Istanbul fields more professional football teams as a city - 22 in total - so it's probably safe to say that to host thirteen is quite an achievement. Although to be beaten in this by Istanbul probably is not.) With the new Olympic site in development London will soon have a world class velodrome, a brand new 80,000 seater stadium and an Olympic logo, which cost almost half a million pounds to commission, yet would have been more imaginatively designed if left to a 3 year old with a box of colouring pencils.

One annual event is so unbelievably British, and ever so slightly elitist, that I am constantly surprised that anyone outside the city, let alone the country finds it vaguely enthralling. I speak of the University Boat Race, held between Oxford and Cambridge Universities on the Thames each year as Spring approaches, on a day when it unfailingly rains; in 2009 that day was today. Despite being grandly termed the University Boat Race only Oxford and Cambridge compete, and it is easy to overlook the number of other universities around the country which are home to many of our finest international oarsmen and women. Oxford and Cambridge clothing is worn like a badge of honour on former students who watch "their teams" race, even people who never even went to Oxbridge haul it out from somewhere for the boat race. Proudest of all are former competitors who return every year to reassure themselves that in their own race however many years ago they truly achieved something special.

The competing boats, known as "blues", due to the navy and duck-egg colours in which they race, start at Putney Bridge and row 4 miles and 374 yards down to Mortlake, taking around 20 minutes depending on fluvial and weather conditions. Today Oxford won in seventeen minutes flat, and, according to those who saw the finish, by some significant margin. I did not see the finish, in truth I saw little even of the start, however I know this puts me in the majority of spectators. Putney today resembles the streets of Notting Hill during its famed carnival; throngs of people, most clutching plastic pint glasses of beer, wrapped up in gilets, scarves and gloves, all heading down towards the river. Pubs are packed, with punters spilling out onto pavements and even roads. The towpath along both sides of the river contained crowds of spectators 10 men, women and children deep.

This year's victorious Oxford crew (courtesy of the Boat Race website)

Honestly, and I used to row at university myself (no, not at one of Those Two) so feel I can say this, rowing is no thrilling spectator sport. Sprint races can be fun, as one can usually see the majority of the course, and teams go hell for leather in what can be fast and close fought challenges. Over a course almost 5 miles long, on a river as meandering as the Thames, one can see the action for a few minutes at most. On such a long course if one team is remotely more competent than an other they will take the advantage and hold it for most of the race - no surprise then that there has only been one dead heat in the boat race's long history. In discussion with a friend who once trained with the Oxford blues, we agreed that the Oxford Cambridge boat race is a sporting event unlike many others. Rowers train for years, treating each proceeding regatta or race as merely a warm-up for this single 20 minute slog. They change their diets, training routines, sleeping patterns and social lives for a single event which may all to easily end in hideous disappointment and exhausting pain.

For Londoners however the event provides the perfect excuse for a day by the river, and more often than not, a party. Putney is home to a significant proportion of London's Aussie, New Zealander and South African populations, who love nothing more than an excuse to loudly cheer on a sports team and put away a lot of beer. Even at half 7 in the evening, several hours after the race the streets are still full of race fans (many of whom are now considerably more drunk than when they watched the race; three large 6 foot men have just slurred there way through All-4-One's classic 90s boyband anthem "I Swear" in the road outside my house, surprisingly word-perfect) Putney's bars and pubs must take more money on boat race day than any other day of the year. Indeed the bars and pubs with their vast widescreen televisions are probably the best places to watch the race; warm, dry and with an endless supply of alcohol. You will have a better view of the start, the entire course and the finish, as well as avoiding the terrible British weather. To avoid the crowds, throw a house-party instead and invite your friends over, just make sure that you have a large enough television to allow everyone a good view, otherwise you might as well head down to the river!


  1. As an eagle-eyed follower has informed me, there are of course nine men in each boat, not eight as the title of this post states; eight rowers and a cox. The cox however must be the only member of the crew who doesn't relish a win, as the traditional reward for the victorious cox is a chilly dunk in the Thames (with some form of gastro-enteritis for afters if they make the mistake of swallowing any water!).

  2. Boat race day is good fun by the river. The London Olympics are, of course, partly sponsored by some of the UK financial institutions. Does that mean taxpayers are now providing the sponsorship?

  3. Apparently we will be now, thanks to the nationalisation of the Olympics. Surely if we did this properly we'd be able to pull in some more medals?!


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