A sports event in which none of the supremely fit competitors is paid, despite attracting 250,000 spectators and a television audience of millions, is unusual in itself. But the University Boat Race has a significance which goes beyond its 180-year history.
For the British, particularly those interested in sport, it heralds the start of springtime, and with it a domestic season whose highlights are welcomed for their familiarity: the Grand National, Royal Ascot, the FA Cup Final, Wimbledon, the Open Golf Championships. This year will, of course, be dominated by the foreign intrusion of the Olympic Games, but soon things will settle back into comforting domesticity.
The start, it has to be said, has been ominous. Instead of the usual intense but well mannered contest between Oxford and Cambridge’s finest rowers, we had something of a fiasco. A few minutes into the 20-minute event, the race was stopped to avoid serious injury to a swimmer who suddenly appeared in the river between the two boats. After the re-start, the boats got too close together, oars clashed violently, and an Oxford crew member was left “rowing” with splintered pole for the remainder of the race, which Cambridge won easily. To finish things off, the Oxford bow man passed out shortly after the finish and was taken to hospital. Cambridge’s 81st victory (to Oxford’s 76) proved a hollow one.
Picking through the entrails, the doom merchants quickly shifted up a gear, predicting all kinds of calamities for the summer. There is, however, little similarity between the Boat Race and the $14 Billion rocket-fuelled global mega-blast that is the Olympic Games. One key difference being that the Boat Race is still, wonderfully, an event for amateurs. Keep calm and carry on.