Every weekend it’s the same story. I have to run back home at noon to change into weird clothes that I wouldn’t wear in the city. If you walk by Isis, you would notice jackets of some boat clubs of the colleges. Leggings become clothes that both genders can wear. Long socks are no more worn only by footballers or rugby men.
The clothes that prepare us for sport are the clothes that transform us to athletes. The movement and the discomfort, the fitting in through sacrifice this is all the nature of rowing.
I started rowing because I thought Oxford would be the best place to discover and learn this sport. If there is a place on this planet where it is quite normal to discuss rowing three or four times a day it is indeed the city of the dreaming spires.
I discovered the early mornings on the river still cold with the sky still dark. I saw the sun rise quietly and give Christ Church meadow its first colours of the day. I go to a college where we have a lot of rowers but I still wonder what makes this sport so attractive to people?
If you’re a rower, excuse me for the comparisons that follow. The more I row, the more I believe that there is in rowing all that our society dreams about everyday.
The clothes that prepare us for sport are the clothes that transform us to athletes
There is, first, the daily physical effort that goes with the feeling of having accomplished something healthy. We are not going to lie. After a rush on the river at 6:30 am and a lunch in our hall at 8:00 am, we feel accomplished and we can see our day coming without any kind of anxiety. Rowing certainly has an “early bird catches the worm” dimension.
Then, there is a quick improvement that takes place. Over the weeks, the boat is more and more stable on the river, it goes faster. Initially, we could only row by 4 or 6, now we only row by eight on Isis. We all have in our minds the next race – torpids – at the end of Hilary Term. And this improvement does not include any kind of uncertainty. In the space of a term you can go from a “split” of 2: 18 to 2: 05. Sensations can betray, not numbers. Our teams are ranked according to the numbers written on the ergs. Rowing is the kingdom of the Cartesian spirit. There is no room for doubt, either we are performing, or we are not. Everything is rational and follows the rules of the world of numbers.
Finally, on the river, as a rower, there is no decision to make. We just listen to our cox deciding everything. We follow the orders. We follow the rower before us. We do not question the cox. We do not make decisions. We contemplate the boat sliding on the river without deciding which direction it is going. There is no creation in this sport, just one and same gesture to repeat continually.
The illusion of being the master of our day, a quick improvement, a way to calculate this improvement by numbers, no decision making. Isn’t this exactly what our society wants us to become? Aren’t we all afraid of this society of work waiting for us after our studies, reducing us to become workers repeating the same gestures, calculating our improvement in life by numbers?
Leggings become clothes that both genders can wear
By rowing we can become superb athletes who no longer have a creative spirit. By going four times a week to our boathouses, we can become rowers who repeat tirelessly the same gesture while knowing that the perfect stroke simply does not exist.
In fact, if we had to give this sport – that does not think – a philosophy, it would certainly be existentialism and its approach to the absurdity of life.
The famous philosopher Albert Camus is one of the thinkers who thought in the most brilliant way the absurdity of life. What does Camus tell us? That there is no meaning given to our life. That the absurdity of life is born from a divorce between the nostalgia of humans – eternally searching for a meaning to life – and that great world eternally silent to our distressed calls. Does that mean we have to stop living or rowing?
“No,” says Camus, we must imagine Sisyphus – condemned by the gods to eternally roll his stone up and down the hill – happy. We have to imagine rowers on Saturday mornings at 6:30 am happy on the frozen river. We must imagine our rowers happy to get changed. We must imagine our rowers happy to swap their shirts and jeans for splashing jackets and leggings in the heart of the winter.