Mar 23

The Oxford Cambridge Boat Race


An article by Ian Kilbride

Although I graduated from Warwick, the university with the top-ranked UK MBA and ranked second in the world, I still take a curious interest in the annual Oxford Cambridge boat race – to be held this year on Sunday 26 March. With chronological accuracy, this should actually be termed the Cambridge Oxford boat race as it was St John’s College Cambridge who in 1829, issued a challenge to Oxford to a rowing contest at Henley on Thames. They lost!

Since 1856, the boat race has been held annually save for the world war periods and then during the Covid pandemic of 2020. The current tally is 85 victories to the light blues of Cambridge and 81 to their dark blue Oxford rivals. In rowing terms, the course is a punishing combination of sprint and marathon, over the 6,8km stretch of the London Thames from Putney to Mortlake.

The event is typically held in miserably cold conditions between March and April and yet still attracts a crowd in excess of 250, 000 who brave the frigid conditions to support their alma mater, or cheer on the winner, or simply to watch while having a pint and a pie at many of the pubs along the winding Thames. In a welcome sign of the times, from 2015 the women’s eights have competed on exactly the same punishing Tideway course as the men and have produced some thrilling races.

The race has seen its fair share of drama too. The 1877 race was declared a dead heat, though with modern technology this is unlikely be the case ever again. In 1912, the year of the sinking of the Titanic, so too did both boats in particularly treacherous conditions. Cambridge also sank in 1859 and 1978. In 1984 the light blues didn’t even make it to the start line after colliding with a barge. It is rumoured that the Cambridge cox failed his navigation finals that year and was sent down (Oxbridge speak for expelled). In 2012, the race was halted for half an hour when an Australian, T. Oldfield, swam between both boats in protest against spending cuts, the erosion of civil liberties and a growing culture of elitism in BRITISH society! One assumes Mr Oldfield and his ancestors have still not quite recovered from the arrival of James Cook aboard the Endevour in 1770.

But the most infamous episode of all was the so-called mutiny carried out by the elite American Oxford rowers in 1987. Scalded by defeat the previous year, Oxford recruited a high-flying four from the United States in order to “kick Cambridge’s ass” (which is American for beat) according to their New World captain. Training regime, technique and leadership disputes resulted in the quarrelsome quartet ‘mutinying’, however, and being replaced by Oxford’s reserve rowers. They subsequently won by a mere four lengths.

But apart from all the tradition and folklore that goes with this quirky annual event, what’s the appeal? Well, it’s this. From October to March each year, athletically talented, highly intelligent and accomplished young people get up at 05:00am come rain, fog, sleet, snow and ice to train for an amateur event that will last less than 20 minutes of their lives. Irrespective of whether they are international rowers, Olympic gold medallists, PhDs or first years, all eights compete on the same footing, with the only prize being that of a ‘blues blazer’ and competitive pride at beating “the other place.” Win or lose, the crews cheer each other at the Mortlake boat houses finishing line and then proceed to throw their respective coxes into the grey Thames as punishment for what they have put their crews through.

Is it an elite sport? Yes, undoubtedly, but considerable effort is being made to ensure greater access to rowing from all communities, not just elite schools and universities. The boat race also exemplifies something that has been lost in most other sporting codes: amateur excellence, respect, honour and dignity. For me, it is a tradition worth keeping.

Ian Kilbride is the Chairman and CEO of The Spirit Group and an Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch Business School