The one day a year when we actually pretend to care about rowing has rolled around again. On April 11th, dozens of lean, lycra-clad social recluses will take to the Thames for the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, the most prestigious annual event in sport’s sweatiest, soggiest rivalry. To mark the occasion, let’s take a look back over the best bits in the race’s long and choppy history.
1829 – The battle begins. Like all great Oxbridge traditions, the Boat Race was the product of a macho pissing contest between two public schoolboys. Old Harrovian Charles Wordsworth of Christ Church, Oxford and former schoolmate Charles Merrivale of St John’s, Cambridge conceived of a match between the two universities held “at or near London, in an eight-oared boat during the Easter vacation.” The first race took place on the 10th June at Henley, with Oxford in blue jerseys and the Cambridge team channelling a Camp Thunderbirds aesthetic with a selection of fetching pink sashes. Oxford claimed an easy victory, hereby cementing its status as a superior academic institution for years to come.
1877 – Dead-heat. The exact details of the only dead-heat in Boat Race history are still disputed. Rumour has it the race’s umpire, Honest John Phelps, declared the race a draw after falling asleep behind a bush and missing the race’s end. More scathing accounts have alleged Phelps had actually deserted his post and headed for the pub. Perhaps the most curious part of this bizarre tale is the fact that until this point the race didn’t actually have a formal finish line, relying entirely on the judgement of a man who had to call himself ‘Honest’ to assure people of his trustworthiness. Baffling, really.
1927 – The first women’s boat race. Someone notices women are capable of moving their arms forward and backwards on water whilst clinging onto oars. The Women’s Boat Race is born.
1939-45 – The war years. Although the official race was suspended during wartime, four unofficial races were held during the Second World War. Because why should some pesky war get in the way of important business like thrashing out archaic rivalries on rivers?
1987 – Rebellion on the river. When five American athletes on the Oxford crew refused to row under coach Dan Topolski, a Cambridge victory seemed inevitable. Yet an Oxford boat made up of reserve oarsmen eventually paddled their way to an unlikely victory. This heart-warming underdog tale was dramatised in the 1996 film True Blue. Topolski later described his crew’s achievements as “the stuff of fantasy”, proving himself as capable of overstatement as he was of producing rowing excellence.
1998 – Record-breakers. Cambridge hold the record for the race’s fastest winning time, finishing in an astonishing sixteen minutes and nineteen seconds in 1998. Yet, Cambridge also set the record for the race’s slowest winning time of just over twenty-six minutes back in 1860. Either way, both of these races resulted in a Cambridge victory and consequently should be overlooked.
2012 – Paddling protest. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” No, it’s a misguided and frankly underwhelming attempt at an anti-elitism protest. Officials were forced to restart the 2012 race eight minutes in after a protestor, Australian Trenton Oldfield, swam into the path of the boats. In his online manifesto Oldfield claimed to have employed “guerrilla tactics” of “ambush, surprise, mobility and speed” to commit an act of resistance against ‘a culture of elitism’ in British society, a bold claim for a protest that largely consisted of squeezing into a wetsuit and splashing around in the Thames for a bit.
2015 – All together now. This year both the Oxford men’s and women’s crews will be defending their titles, both having stormed to victory in 2014. Yet whatever the result, the real winner of the 2015 race will be gender equality, as this year marks the first time in Boat Race history that the women’s race is taking place on the same day, and on the same course, as the men’s. The historic event will be shown on BBC1 at 4.50pm, with actual female sportsperson and national treasure Clare Balding commentating on the women’s event. Finally.