Rowing for Glory: the University Boat Race

Former Greene’s Tuition Coordinator, Frankie Cowl, probes behind-the-scenes of one of Britain’s oldest and most competitive sporting rivalries. Frankie is a graduate of Keble College, Oxford, where she read English.

On April 7th 2012 rowers from two of the world’s most prestigious universities will take to the Thames, oar in hand, to partake in a battle of gladiatorial proportions.  Oxford’s dark blues face their light blue opposition, Cambridge, in a nail-biting spectacle: a race epitomising the legendary rivalry between England’s oldest universities.  They call it The Boat Race; nothing more, nothing less.  The objectives of its participants: to crush the opposition, victory at all costs, for there can be only one winner and there is no prize for second place.


This 17-minute-long race is unique: arguably the toughest rowing race in the world.   Whereas an Olympic rower will train for 2 km races on a man-made lake, the two Boat Race crews bust their guts for 4 miles and 374 yards, all the while negotiating the spitting, angry and tempestuous Thames.  To the quarter of a million spectators who swarm to the river’s banks each spring, the crews appear a stylish vision of focused power; effortlessly slicing through the river’s unyielding current.  For the spectator, the appeal of the Boat Race is undeniable – in 1949 the excitement of commentator, John Snagge, became too much to bear – ‘I can’t see who’s in the lead but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge!’  Alas, at the time, cameras covered only the finish line and the boat houses!

British tradition has the kind of unwavering tenacity which means that, come rain or shine, the show will go on.  Since 1829, only the two World Wars have managed to stop the race and even the sinking of both crews (1912) could not dampen spirits – the race was rescheduled for the following day when Oxford claimed the trophy.


However, all this glory comes at a price.  Both physically and psychologically the squad members are separated from their classmates.  The competitors train twice a day, six days each week for at least seven months in the run-up to the Race; each of their waking moments consumed by the promise of victory.  Averaging at a gruelling 35 strokes per minute, it takes about 600 strokes to complete The Race.  And – to put this in further perspective – for every one of these 600 strokes, each competitor trains for at least two hours.  It is a battle in itself just to secure a seat in the Blue Boats or the Reserve Boats (Isis and Goldie, respectively, who row the same course 30 minutes before the main fixture – without any of the recognition that they deserve).

On a daily basis the squads face unrivalled physical pain, blisters (often rowers will douse their hands with white spirit to harden the vulnerable skin), fatigue, self-doubt, competition, 6 am training, freezing river conditions, alienation from their peers, and the pressure to balance all this with the heavy academic workloads demanded by Oxbridge.  The Livingstone brothers’ bestselling book, Blood over Water, brings these dynamics (particularly the alienation) into acute focus, and is highly recommendable for its stark look at the limits of human rivalry.  In 2003’s Boat Race, David and James Livingstone raced against each other.  David (Oxford) won by a mere 12 inches having taken the lead from his brother James (Cambridge) in the Race’s final moments.  Such is the unpredictability of the race; the arbitrary whims of chance that drench one crew in victory, leaving the other with nothing.


People who ask: ‘Why? – Surely all this pain and torment cannot be worth it?’ fail to understand the rewards of rowing and of participating in a race of such prestige.  Yes, rowing equips its practitioners with a multitude of highly valued skills, but ultimately oarsmen row and cox for the glory; the victories; the elation of success; the triumph; for the unspeakable and often lifelong camaraderie that is cultivated by the sport.  Halberstam offers an analogy that isn’t far wrong, comparing oarsman of 1984’s Olympics to ‘combat veterans coming back from a small, bitter and distant war, able to talk only to other veterans.’  Such alienation might hold little appeal to the outsider but, for those inside, the collegiality is all-consuming and the promise of victory: infatuating.

The 158th Boat Race will take place on April 7th 2012 at 2.15pm.

Posted on: April 2nd, 2012 | Categories: History, Sport, Tutor Articles