I don’t know about you, but as soon I know I’m being watched, my rowing completely falls apart. All it takes is a few people hanging out on the rowing club steps and I’m thrashing about like a beginner, and as soon as a photographer hoves into view I’m guaranteed to take my worst strokes. Which is one of the reasons why I was so in awe of the Boat Race crews I had the privilege of observing from the press launch yesterday.
Of course they need to be used to having cameras up close and personal. Quite apart from sponsors wanting their photo opps at regular intervals – requiring the athletes to moonlight as fitness models with no training for the job – there’s the blaze of media attention on the day, with hundreds of millions tuning in worldwide (a staggering 400 million in total, with nine million watching on the BBC alone). Every stroke will be analysed and armchair experts will confidently take their technique apart, opining that they should have rigged the boat differently, or that four isn’t tapping down, or their stroke rate is too high, or too low, or any number of pernickety criticisms.
Now most elite athletes have to submit themselves to media attention on race day, but not many have to endure it during training. Yet for the Boat Race crews it’s a daily event in the week leading up to the races themselves. Every morning and afternoon, a press launch takes to the water with about eight photographers hoisting bags-ful of enormous cameras and even more enormous lenses to capture every twitch, every glance, every smile and frown and sneeze. Even with my super-basic compact camera, I felt like I was indecently close.
On the plus side, the professional photographers get fabulous footage of the rowers that the press can use (hopefully in place of the champagne-spraying-cliche favoured by some outlets). The crews themselves get used to cameras being trained on them, so in that sense they benefit, too. But still. It must be tough, especially if any of them happens to be having a bad day or takes a duff stroke. Yet they all dealt with it with good grace (and in the case of the women’s crews, who were noticeably more smiley and relaxed, with genuine charm).
As far as predictions for Sunday are concerned, I didn’t see the Oxford men training so can’t make a comparison, and I only saw the women’s crews fleetingly – certainly not enough to lay a bet. What I can say with confidence, though, is that to a man and woman they were all admirably patient and professional. Good luck to every last one of them.