The second or the two articles I’ve been prompted to post ahead of Sunday’s Boat Race is a piece I was asked to write about what the Boat Race means to people involved in it. It originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday a number of years ago.
When Cambridge lost the Boat Race in 1992, enough pundits expected them to break Oxford’s long run (of 16 wins in 17 years, with only 1986 seeing the Dark Blues trailing) for the BBC to decide to run a series of documentaries on their training. By way of thanks for the co-operation of the squad, they sent that year’s President, Max Justicz, a present, which he duly opened at the post-Race dinner. Already dejected from the shattering defeat of earlier, Justicz quickly realised what it was. “They’ve sent me champagne,” he said quietly as he turned his back on the still half-wrapped parcel. “Don’t they understand anything?”
Those of us who were present understood exactly. The Boat Race had come to mean something in his mind – as it does for all who take part – out of all proportion with a rowing race over a ridiculous stretch of the Thames. I could relate to it perfectly: from the day I first coxed a Cambridge boat in 1991, to the day I wolfed down a cream bun for the watching press in April 1995, there was scarcely a moment when the obsession with gaining a winning Blue slipped from my mind. Even during long stints in Russia and France that kept me well away from the Tideway, it completely consumed my life. I repeatedly ran the length of the Left Bank in Paris turning the Pont Neuf into Hammersmith Bridge and Les Invalides into the Bandstand. I ran round and round the Gothic monstrosity that is Moscow University, coxing myself in my head from landmark to landmark, winning more struggles rowing round the outside of the Barnes bend than there have been races. I knew every calorific content and every fat percentage in every item of food, and spent weeks on end eating nothing but mushrooms and sugar-free jelly. I did all my coursework for six months sitting on an exercise bike, covering 4,000 miles in the final six weeks. All that in spite of the fact that I hated coxing: I hated the lack of activity central to a cox’s job, and I hated the tedium of spending hours on the river without physical benefit. But at 5’10, and naturally weighing around 9-and-a-half stone, I was never going to get near a Boat Race crew as an oarsman, and getting into a Boat Race crew was what I wanted to do. My friends thought I was mad.
Working out why is to try to rationalise the irrational, but part of the reason the Boat Race does funny things to people is that the Boat Race is a funny event. It is at the same time the best-known, and by extension the most prestigious, student-based institution, and a curious anachronism: a ‘private match’ steeped in so much tradition that it is, at once, part of the nation’s sporting heritage and an out-dated joke. But for the people involved, this dual role is precisely what makes the Boat Race something not just to take part in, but to live. It might seem to be about seventeen minutes on the river; but for the participants, it is a way of life.
The initial attraction for oarsmen all over the world is undoubtedly that everyone knows what the Boat Race is. “I rowed in the Boat Race” is a statement which people can relate to. But once you get involved in the event – and you see the level of commitment it inspires and the camaraderie it creates – it takes on a new meaning far and away above anything that can be explained by annual tradition. Ultimately, what drives its participants to extremes is the basic lack of understanding of what “I rowed in the Boat Race” actually means. It doesn’t mean that you were in an eight of dubious quality, racing over 4.25 miles only because of a quirk of history, with the race often being decided in the first five minutes. What it does mean is that you gave up virtually everything for six months to gain a winning Blue. It means you trained for five hours a day, six days a week, with heart-rates, lactate levels, lung capacity, and body fat being carefully monitored. It means you went out for months in high winds, and rain, and cold, and hail. It means you were absolutely dedicated to the cause, at the expense of everything else. In short, it means that you lived the life of a professional athlete. Only you did it for nothing.
But while you might live like a professional athlete, you cannot compete like one – able to fail occasionally, and prove your worth another day. So to compete in the Boat Race also means that you took an extraordinary gamble. The crews have one single race that matters, and each of them knows that their fate will be decided by a fractional difference. But equally, however fractional it may be, the difference of the final outcome will appear enormous to the watching public. Success will mean mission accomplished, but failure will make them look as if they did not deserve to compete.
In effect, therefore, the Boat Race is an event driven by failure, and only in losing it can you ever really understand what it means. It is no coincidence that the previous losers issue the challenge to race again. When the two crews sit on the start on Saturday, they will know that at some brief moment in the next seventeen minutes, something will happen that will make or break their last six months. They will know that the friends they have ignored will understand either soon or never at all. They will know that a lifetime of pride awaits them at the finish. And they will know that the Boat Race is an event based upon tradition not because the inaugural challenge took place in 1829, but because each year, the stakes are heightened by the last crew that lost.
So to be part of the Boat Race is to be a number of things at the same time. It is to be a part of the nation’s sporting heritage; to compete in what remains one of the top few televised events in the world. It is to be a cog in a historical wheel which will link you, down the years, with some of the great names and characters in the world of sport. It is to compete at the very highest level with international medallists and Olympic finalists. And ultimately, it is to stand up in front of everyone you know and stake everything on one chance of glory. But if you fail, forget the champagne.