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The Boat Race

Earlier in the week, I had great plans to blog about the fact that it was 20 years (on 4th April) since one of the more memorable days of my life: I left the Bank of England Sports Club, Cambridge’s perennial pre-Boat Race lodging, as the title music for Champions heralded the start of Grandstand (the Grand National took place on the same day), and  I rocked up to the Boat Race Ball ten hours later, having in the interim won by 3 1\4 lengths, to dance the night away.

Sadly, I never got around to it; nor to prefacing this year’s race, which of course has since given massive cause for substantial media comment.  Instead, as I left Cambridge’s celebratory dinner last night, I decided to jot down a few random observations on the day’s proceedings:

1. Should Cambridge have won?

The overwhelming reaction I heard last night was that “Oxford were robbed” – except from the Blue Boat oarsman I sat next to who was absolutely insistent that if the original race had gone to its term, the result would have been the same: “we think we were fitter and stronger than they were, and we’d have come through”.

Maybe, maybe not.  But the extent to which it – and indeed all the previous views I’d heard to the contrary, also mainly from Cambridge men – is irrelevant was summed up by the best speech I’ve heard at a Boat Race dinner in twenty years.  Steve Peel, President of the Cambridge crew which lost in the mutiny year of 1987, said that he had always believed that “on any other day and in any other circumstances, our crew would have won…. But if the race were designed to be fair, it would be raced on a buoyed course over 2000m.  It isn’t.  It’s never been designed to be a fair race: it’s unfair, but equally unfair. And over the years, crews have been unlucky to lose and lucky to win.”

Twice in ten years, a re-start has finished with Oxford losing a race they felt they were coming through to win. Last time, it was an Oxford umpire who called it, and they haven’t invited him back. I can understand them ruing their ill-fortune; and I have enormous sympathy for yesterday’s crew.  But the question above  isn’t “did Cambridge deserve to win?” – it’s “should Cambridge have won?”; and the answer is ‘yes’. That’s the nature of the race, and it would be pointless to blame the swimmer and churlish to blame the man in charge.

2. So did the umpire get it right?

Every Boat Race umpire wants to have a race where nothing much happens, a bit like every Boat Race cox.  You half dream of a scenario where everything goes wrong and you come out the hero having made all the right calls, but in reality, you just want to be logged in the history books having secured the desired outcome.

The thing is that while the public’s attention turns on the umpire – as it does the race – for a single day in a year, in fact everything that happens on the day has been meticulously planned over the course of preceding months.  The race happens to a set of rules, and the parameters within which the umpire can operate are extremely narrow.  A huge number of “what if” scenarios are run through by the Umpires’ Panel, including, last year, the possibility that a protestor should jump in an disrupt the race.  The reaction of the umpire was therefore almost certainly the same reaction that any umpire would have had, because unlike us, none would have been deciding on the spur of the moment.

So, the decision to re-start the race from further upstream, apart from being entirely sensible, was probably one which would have been taken by an umpire from either side.  It had nothing to do with the fact that it gave Cambridge more of a bend in their favour than if they had started from where the boats came to a halt (a point from which they would anyway have drifted on substantially with the tide by the time they got going again), and everything to do with the fact that the objective for the umpire was to have both crews back at race pace and into their stride by the time they went back through the point where they were stopped.

The second incident, with the broken oar, was the cause of far greater controversy, with Oxford’s strokeman telling the umpire within earshot of the television microphones that “you’ve done a great job for your university today”.  But again, in my view, John Garrett made absolutely the right call in over-ruling the appeal against the result.

The rules, as far as I remember them, basically state (in layman’s translation) that the umpire has total discretion in everything, and that once both crews are passed the end of the Fulham Wall (that is, by Craven Cottage), any “equipment failure” is just something you have to cope with unless its failure was caused by the opposing crew being off its station.  Cambridge were quite clearly not that.

“Equipment failure” has totally erroneously come to mean “an early clash” after it occurred in the first minute of the race in 2001. In fact it has nothing to do with clashing at all, but -exactly as the name implies – relates to the equipment somehow failing without impact. But even sticking to the new extended definition, the only defence the Oxford cox had was that the rule about equipment failure actually applies to any clash within the first, say, 50 strokes of an umpire’s start, rather than the start off the stakeboats. Unfortunately for her, it doesn’t.  The clash and breakage were a great shame and caused a huge anticlimax in the context of the racing also having been re-started, but if they had taken place where they did in any race, the outcome would have been the same: the crew that went on to win was not out of its water when the incident occurred, so it was at best, bad luck and at worst, bad judgment.

3. Does that mean it was all the Oxford cox’s fault?

It’s a harsh call, and I feel very bad for her, because as Oxford coach Sean Bowden rightly pointed out, ‘the clash was obviously just one of those extremely unfortunate things’. I’ve seen and been in hundreds of clashes, and never seen a blade broken like that. But as was pointed out to me by the stroke man of my 1995 crew when I arrived at dinner last night, “If you think your crew is faster off the start [which Oxford quite demonstrably were] and are better generally [almost certainly ditto], and you have the biggest bend on the course about to come in your favour [which obviously they did] then why on earth would you fight for every last inch of water?” To emphasize his point, he finished with, “if you’d done that to us, we’d have killed you!”

The cox’s lot is not a happy one: much like a goalkeeper, any mistake you make tends to be high-profile, and costly.  But your primary objective is to give your crew a clear run, and unfortunately, for whatever reason, Zoe de Toledo failed to do that.  As one oarsman said to me yesterday, “it’s nine against nine, and your aim is to go out and break one of them. You don’t care which one it is.”

4. Why do they bother with the Boat Race?

Because of all the hoo-hah, I ended up reading quite a lot of what was being said on Twitter about the Boat Race.   It made for depressing reading, with opinions I have no doubt shared by many readers of this blog. Jack Dee’s contribution congratulating the same two teams on making it to the final might be the oldest joke out there, but it was still re-tweeted several thousand times.

Most of the negative stuff that is said about the Boat Race is demonstrably untrue if you bother to spend more than a few moments to look at the facts, the most obvious of which is that it is rarely an exciting race.  Of course it is true that by the finish, it is always a procession; but that’s the nature of anything where the competitors are not required to be in separate lanes for the duration.  You might as well describe the 1500m or the Marathon as a procession, since the first home is followed inch for inch by whoever is second, some time after crossing the line.

In reality, the races have – increasingly in the last 20 years – been getting closer and closer, with the crews staying head-to-head for longer and longer.  Yesterday, there were serious concerns in the Cambridge camp that they would be beaten inside a minute, and they very nearly were. But having clawed their way back in it, they then slugged it out for the next ten, bow-ball to bow-ball. Whether they were about to be broken by the enormous Barnes bend, we shall never know: psychology would have started to play a major part, had they held on for even half of it, with the pre-race favourites surely likely to doubt themselves and wonder why they couldn’t shake off such supposedly mediocre opposition. Who knows: we might have witnessed one of the great finishes, to match the inch of 2003. Whatever the ‘what if’s, what we saw yesterday and have seen in most contests since the end of Oxford’s dominance in the 1970s and 80s was thrilling racing, and anyone who says otherwise either hasn’t been watching, or, Jack Dee-like, just wants to play to the gallery.

5. The television coverage

I watched the drama unfold yesterday from a launch following the two crews, but when I got home I watched it again on iPlayer, and I was struck by how absolutely outstanding the television production of it was. The camera angles and the close-up shots have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, as has the sound balance which now allows you to hear the coxes all the way through in the background, rather than going to them every now and again, invariably at a moment when they stop saying anything interesting. Yesterday’s coverage, which put you right in the thick of it, was a massive credit to the team behind it.

Sadly, the brilliant production was not, in my view, matched by expert commentary.  I didn’t think the Boat Race’s stalwart Dan Topolski had his finest hour: I thought he spent too much of his time telling us things he wanted us to know, rather than commentating on – and explaining – what was actually happening. At its most extreme, he was still pontificating about the next bend when both crews had stopped some seconds earlier. You can understand his allegiance, but he also seemed more focused on talking Oxford up than on dealing with what had happened, telling us that he thought they were the faster crew on the day, as if that mattered a row of beans (to go back to Peel, above, Topolski should know: he was coaching Oxford that year). And following the clash, he told us that “the umpire is going to have to make a decision”, when the fact that the race was still going made it quite obvious that the umpire had already done just that – and it just happened to be one that he didn’t like. Wayne Pommen, from the launch, called it absolutely right – as he did every time they went to him – in saying that “the umpire feels he was warning Oxford when it happened”, which meant that no foul had occurred.

I thought the rest of the commentary and presentation team did well.  Matthew Pinsent was totally in command, as you’d expect, despite juggling multiple jobs; the novice of the piece (in Boat Race terms), Jonathan Ledgard, I thought did a fine job; and Clare Balding, in what must surely be the most difficult circumstances she will ever have to deal with, was, as always, outstanding. She is total class.

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