I didn’t really want to write this post. I don’t like getting into Twitter-spats and try to keep things friendly here. But as the Boat Race approaches, the jibes – invariably involving the words “over-privileged”, “class-ridden” and “toffs” – are as predictable as the champagne and Hunter wellies, so I’m going to take a moment to go through a few of the arguments and explain what I think about it all.
1. It’s ridiculous that it’s only Oxford and Cambridge- what about the other universities?
Well, it’s a private match – a challenge by one university to another. There is, incidentally, an annual head race open to all universities – the BUCS 4s and 8s head, and a lot of university crews also enter the annual Head of the River and Women’s Head races that run over the same course as the Boat Race. No, they don’t get the same coverage, and I wish they did. It would be great to bring rowing out from behind the “other sports” barrier.
2. Well, in that case, other universities should be allowed to have their own private matches.
They are, and some of them do. There’s an annual Bristol / UWE Boat Race, for example, and a Scottish Boat Race between Edinburgh and Glasgow universities. And yes, it would be great to see them on TV, too.
3. They’re just a bunch of toffs.
This is usually a lazy shorthand for private school-educated. It is true that the privately-educated crew members outnumber the state school ones, and there’s a reason for this. Because rowing is a sport that uses expensive equipment and requires use of a boat house, not many state schools have a rowing club. I’ve blogged about this HERE, in case you’re interested. Rowing is a difficult technical sport so whilst you do get one or two people who start rowing as a fresher and progress quickly enough to represent the university, most simply can’t get up to the required standard in time. Inevitably, then, there will be more privately-educated people in the crews. You’ll find it’s the same at every university.
4. Why should the river be closed off for a race, anyway?
The river is regularly closed off for races and nobody seems to mind about that. There’s the Head of the River, the Vets’ Head, the Women’s Head, the Fours Head, the Vets’ Fours Head, the Pairs Head, the Scullers Head… shall I go on?
5. What’s the big deal anyway? It’s less than 20 minutes.
Trust me. It’s hard. Really, really hard.
6. They’re not even the best rowers in the country.
No one said they were. They are the best that those universities can field, and some of them, like Oxford’s Constantine Louloudis, go on to row for GB. But it’s a university private match, not the Olympics, so it’s self-limiting.
7. Half of them are only at Oxbridge for the rowing.
Well, it is true that the prospect of rowing for the university is a draw for a lot of excellent rowers, but they do have to prove themselves academically to get into the university. I have it on good authority from a number of Oxbridge admissions tutors that outing yourself as a serious rower can be a hindrance rather than a help in applying for a place as you’re likely to spend more time on the river than in the library. The idea that they’re just jocks with nothing between the ears just isn’t accurate.
8. No one cares.
Actually, rightly or wrongly, they do. UK viewing figures alone average nine million. Add the people lining the banks and the overseas viewers (the worldwide radio and TV figures run to 400 million, apparently) and that’s a lot of people who do care.
9. Well, it’s ridiculous that it gets so much coverage.
Look, I get that it might not be your thing. Rowing isn’t for everyone. The Boat Race isn’t for everyone. But nine million people are switching on their tellies for it, and in the minds of the BBC that is reason enough to screen it. If the figures fell away you can be sure that it would be axed from the schedule in a heartbeat.
10. But it all just smacks of privilege – it’s all asset management this, champagne that.
All right, you’ve got me on that one. I can’t deny feeling a little uncomfortable about the message the blue chip sponsors give about our sport and about rowing culture. For most of us, rowing is not a glamorous activity. We don’t go around swilling expensive champagne (if only). We wear mismatched wellies that occasionally spring a leak. We don’t have top-of-the-range kit and we certainly don’t wear tweed and pearls when we’re off the water. It’s just not like that, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was when you see the sponsors. You win that one, OK?
So that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject. Lecture over for another year. As you were.
Tags: Boat Race, Boat Race toffs, Oxford and Cambridge, river, Rowing, Scottish Boat Race