Rowing at Oxford: Memoirs of a Not-Very-Sporty-Person


Thanks to my objectivity as resident Not-Very-Sporty-Person, I was able to observe the phenomenon of the metamorphosis of the boys on the men’s teams into Manly Man Rowers. The process begins harmlessly enough: in race week, the flock of Manly Manlings first schedule their daily post-rowing trips to Mission Burrito, and insist on proudly showing me the progress of their loyalty cards, complemented by boasting of completion of the Mission Burrito Challenge. It’s almost endearing. But the symptoms multiply. The Manly Man Rowers are prone to emitting strange cries, particularly the coxes, who seem to forget that they have microphones and insist on roaring things like “set – here – row – here – KILL- THEM – MURDER – THEM”. But the lycra one-piece suits are the worst. These shockingly tight garments provide ample opportunity for the boys to strut around like black-and-gold-coloured peacocks, flexing their biceps and shamelessly checking on the progress of their already bulging arms in the boathouse mirrors. Not content with this, many of them also find it necessary to  strip the top half of the suit  completely off after races, despite the fact that it’s actually quite cold around the time of the Christchurch Regatta (not that they feel it; they’re kept warm by an excessive sense of virility).

But the favourite behavioural pattern of the Manly Man Rower is the wounded hero impression. In Torpids this year, Brasenose M2 managed to avoid getting bumped and staggered into the boathouse for a twenty-minute break with the air of warriors on borrowed time, about to resume battle. And in this strange war of oar, I had become nurse on standby. One of the boys heads my way, asking if he can have some of my cooling gel for his aching arms (and of course, the effect wouldn’t be the same if it were not necessary for me to rub it into his gargantuan flexed arms myself). He is followed by another, who requests the same treatment, and then by a third. As I’m in the process of rubbing down number three, our cox for the day – who just happens to be one of the College Deans – comes in with a start and asks what exactly he has just walked in on.

The display of Manly Man-ness continues into the celebratory dinner which finishes off the week of racing, with macho sconces and the public display the boys’ trainer makes of eating a ghost chilli. (He hides its effects marvellously, except for the fact that he has to ask the kitchens for several pint glasses of milk.)

Nevertheless, however amused I may be by the boys’ delusions of man-deur, I have to admit that on some level it works. They train hard because they don’t want to disappoint their fellow teammates, and their manly man-ness is expressed as something which unites them as a team, not as a rivalry between them; it is an unselfish manliness. Well, mostly. Partly they just enjoy checking themselves out.


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