The annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is now only just over a fortnight away.
Today, it’s the amateur sporting event with the biggest television audience of any in the world. In the UK alone, over 7 million people watched last year’s race on ITV – quarter of a million actually turned up to the race itself – and in 2004 half a billion people (UPDATE: actually c. 100 million) watched worldwide.
Despite this, it’s kept a local feel. Of the Oxford blue boat this year, one member was educated in Hammersmith, which the race will pass, and another in Abingdon, a small market town on the Thames close to where the crew does much of its training. Cambridge are a little further flung – they include rowers from Derby and Wrexham. Nevertheless, on 7th April, the globe will be tuning in to a river in a little country famous since Roman times for painting itself blue, and places as diverse as Empty Quarter oases and Antarctic research stations will split down the middle to roar their respective boats on.
For all that this isn’t, and never has been, a race between the two best boats in the world, it’s not a soft race. By tradition, the race goes ahead in almost any conditions, and sometimes those conditions would be sufficient under normal arrangements to see regattas called off. Famously, boats do sink, and given that the Thames is a dangerous, fast-flowing embanked river, that’s not quite the amusing dip into the drink it might at first sound.
Alongside cricket and racing, it’s a survivor from before the industrialization of Britain really took hold. Public school blogger Chris Dillow will be pleased to learn, if he didn’t already know, that one school he covers especially often, Harrow, provided the twin inspirations for the first race, Charles Merivale at Cambridge, and Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet) at Oxford. The annual challenge has continued almost uninterrupted ever since, pausing only for the two World Wars. The course itself has remained nominally the same since 1864, although the building of Bazelgette’s Embankment would have changed its nature substantially during that time.
Despite the race’s place in the UK’s sporting calendar alongside the Grand National and the FA Cup Final, as one attracting attention from people not normally drawn to sport, the Boat Race is still often subject to a degree of social bigotry. Damian Counsell, who, being both an Oxford man and a Cambridge man has a foot confusingly in both camps, decries a particularly witless and unpleasant example of the genre – from what you might see as an unexpected source – here. But that’s unusual. For most people, it’s a bit of unimportant fun on what will hopefully turn out to be a bright day, not a chance to get the Kennington Common rally right this time.
Rowing is a notoriously demanding sport in terms of fitness and training. The two crews on April 7th will have worked and sacrificed to a mad dogs and englishmen degree, and within 20 minutes of the race’s start, eight of the sixteen competitors will be wondering what it was all for. Perhaps one day it will be decided from the best of three, but for now, here’s a foretaste of what’s in store on the 7th: