There’s one sporting competition that I watch every year. There are two reasons I try not to miss it. Firstly, it’s a very unpredictable event, and secondly my team makes the final every year. It’s the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.
Of course, I’m joking when I boast that my alma mater Oxford “makes the final” annually. It’s a competition just between Oxford and Cambridge. I realise that this sort of straight duel between two traditional rivals has equivalents around the world but it’s rather rare in Britain. I think the Army-Navy rugby match is the closest but is nowhere near as famous. The England-Scotland football match used to be huge but it ceased to be an annual event in 1989 because of crowd trouble and antagonism.
So this is one of the things that make the Boat Race unusual. Another is that you can say “the” Boat Race and everyone knows it means Oxford-Cambridge, though there are lots of other boat races that take place in Britain. It’s surprising that millions of people watch it live on TV every year considering what tiny percentage of them ever attended either university. Even the people commentating on the race refer to it as “eccentric” and spend a lot of energy explaining why it’s worth watching.
I won’t go into every aspect of the race (I do so at some length in my book) but I want to stress my first point: it’s an unpredictable event. A lot of things can happen because it’s an extremely long race on a tidal river in early spring. Olympic eights typically row 2km on still water. Oxford-Cambridge is 6.8km on the Thames, which requires a combination of incredible stamina, technique and strategy. Sometimes it’s glorious spring weather. Sometimes it’s brutally cold. The river can be fairly smooth but other times it’s so choppy it’s treacherous. Either way, the boats must try to find the part of the river with the fastest current to help carry them.
Famously, the boats sometimes sink. Cambridge sank in 1978. Both teams sank in 1912 (it was rerun and Oxford won). The Cambridge women’s boat looked to be winning in 2016 but took on so much water that it could barely move for a few minutes, allowing Oxford to race away.
So yesterday I sat down to watch the Boat Race with great anticipation, or I should say Boat Races as the BBC now gives equal coverage to the women’s race. (The reserve boats also race on the same day, though these aren’t broadcast.) Cambridge women’s boat and men’s boat both won the coin toss before the race, meaning they could choose the slightly advantageous starting position. The point of this is that during the middle phase of the race they should have the inside lane on the long bend. But the other team has an advantage on the shorter bend at the start. So if the other team can get ahead during that stage, it can negate the other’s overall advantage. There are lots of ways to win the race and lots of ways to lose.
This year, in both races Cambridge went ahead from the start – from the stage where they are supposed to be at a disadvantage – and then stayed there till the end. Neither Oxford crew looked like closing the gap, neither Cambridge crew ever looked like giving up its lead. To top it all, Cambridge won both the reserve races. So it was the worst Boat Race ever: nothing unusual or exciting happened, and my team lost.
So I definitely have to watch next year to see the revenge.