The Boat Race: A Call for Moderation

(Originally published 01/04/2013)

Why does anyone care about the Boat Race? Outside of the relative few who, as either present or former students, or genuine rowing enthusiasts, have interests in the outcome, the prevailing response seems to be that, on the whole, no one knows. If the Twitter reaction is anything to go by, opinion seems to range between mild indifference and outright hatred, with unfavourable comparisons to paint drying coming in at the more polite end of the opinion spectrum.

Oxford’s winning team, complete with sweary cox

This being the case, why does the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, continue to devote the best part of a prime time Easter Sunday slot to what is ultimately a minority interest? The laughable hype built up by the race’s hour-long prelude shows that there is very little interesting about it to say: ‘moving narratives’ of the rowers’ harsh training regimes (more engaging versions of which can be found over any Oxbridge college breakfast table), set to Hans Zimmer-esque background music are forced upon the viewer in order to give them a reason to care, but even the BBC’s shiniest graphics can’t change public opinion. Simply put; if you don’t have a team to support, the Boat Race is quite dull.

Beyond merely boring a fairly substantial section of the public, though, the Boat Race’s TV coverage is directly harmful to both universities, and, I would argue, should be taken off the air. This event is (aside from the ubiquitous funding-scandal headlines) the most public exposure the universities get every year, and what do people see? Red trousers, champagne, the looming presence of an investment bank, people called Constantine (sorry Constantine…). This is not representative, yet to people watching the Boat Race, this IS Oxford. It’s no wonder that the outreach and mythbusting team #OxTweet, made up of current students aiming to give prospective applicants a glimpse of real Oxford life, were under such pressure on the afternoon of the race: if we are to stand a chance of getting rid of the stigma that puts bright people off from applying, the Boat Race’s TV presence must go.

I understand this would not be a popular argument among students/alumni: for all concerned, the Boat Race is quite fun, and obviously much better now that we’ve won again, but is an annual afternoon of televised Tab-bashing worth this price? Varsity matches of any shape and size are enjoyable, but should this one be singled out? Outside of the Oxbridge bubbles, rowing is not that popular a sport, and the very fact that this one match is its only major televised event outside of the Olympics says much about its relative level of interest. But it is unavoidable in the media because the Boat Race is an institution. Dan Snow’s dire monologue on the ‘glorious traditions of the Thames’, shown as part of the build-up to the race, perfectly illustrates why this coverage exists: because it always has done. Coverage like this, just like the race itself, is a hanger-on from the Bad Old Days from which Oxford and Cambridge, by virtue of love for tradition, are still unable to escape. Thus, the coverage must get bigger every year, and every year must be more tension-filled than the last, for that is the way it always has been, and that is the way it shall be.

This situation must change, then, but how? First, scrap the BBC broadcast, and replace it with a student-run livestream. This would be difficult, but would provide a huge opportunity for the keen filmmakers and journos (of which Oxford seems to have thousands) to work on a prestigious project. Thus, the race is still able to be viewed live on the internet, students get invaluable experience, and the general public aren’t forced to endure a 2-hour Hollister ad. Second, move the race to Henley, where the womens’ is already held. Henley is already the home of contemptible bourgeois water-sports, so it would be right at home. Not only does this mean Central London is not bombarded with students for the day, but traffic is not disrupted on the Thames, and (hopefully) the Royal Marines won’t be called out again… Third, give some actual coverage to the womens’ race. Just because the Boat Race is 160-odd years old, that doesn’t mean its gender politics should be too.

In short, these proposals would turn the Boat Race into what it should be: just another Varsity Match. This is beneficial to the public, because they don’t have to put up with us; to the universities, because it will play a part in shooing away the stereotypes that countless University members devote themselves to fighting; and to the student body as a whole, because getting drunk in Henley is more socially acceptable than in central London. These ideas should not be controversial, and the very fact they are shows just how far we have to go, yet outreach initiatives like #OxTweet can only succeed when institutional bastions of privilege are broken down. Trenton Oldfield, your hour has come.

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