Oxford trails Cambridge in the 2019 Boat Race (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Boat Race is being steered off course

Moving the Boat Race from London to Ely is a desperate measure

Most of the sporting events that Covid either cancelled or turned into anemic mimicries of the original, will regain their vitality once fear and regulation abate. At some stage, next year, the crowds will return to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, Ibrox and Easter Road. Steady processions will file through the Kirkstall Lane entrance. Wembley and Twickenham will roar again. These are regular spectator habits that can be interrupted, but not broken.

But what of the Boat Race? Racing eights depend on maintaining a rowing rhythm and that is what this annual amateur anachronism on the Tideway has lost. Cancelled because of Covid in 2020, it risks a prolonged absence from the Championship Course on the Thames. Next year it will be held on the Great Ouse at Ely. “We are encouraging the millions of Boat Race fans to get involved at home” BRCL, the body that organises the race, announced in a statement on Thursday. In other words, don’t turn up to watch the race.

BRCL offer two explanations for why the Great Ouse, a river that at Ely is too lethargic for Pooh sticks, will host the 2021 Boat Race. The first is a desire to move the event away from London, where crowds – and any lingering Covid – would congregate. The second reason is the sorry saga of Hammersmith bridge, which spans the course.

The Victorian era suspension bridge has been closed to vehicles since April last year and river craft are no longer permitted under it. Plans are in motion to create a temporary crossing, but London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, Hammersmith and Fulham council, and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, are locked in dispute over who will foot the bulk of the multi-million pound repair bill. A full, lasting, stabilisation could take up to six years to achieve. The Boat Race’s absence from London could be lengthy.

Need it be? Having banned every other craft from going under Hammersmith bridge, an exception is not going to be made for two elite student crews to row under it, even although they would do so for all of four seconds. The bridge having therefore been effectively turned into a dam, the race could still have gone ahead on the Tideway by racing from Westminster Bridge to Chelsea or by starting beyond Hammersmith Bridge and ending near Kew. But that would not have solved the problem of a crowd gathering to watch. Large numbers of spectators could be discouraged by holding the race midweek (there are historical precedents) and at an early hour, but doing so would be bad for television viewing figures.

The organisers have thus had to choose between various differently flawed options and concluded Ely is the least dismal. But the location matters because the Boat Race is not like most sports that are playable anywhere with a suitable surface marked to the standardised court and pitch dimensions. Since the 1840s it has been rowed on the same stretch of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake. Which cox finds the fastest line of the stream, which boat rides out the choppy squall at Chiswick Steps or makes the most of the alternating advantages of the Fulham, Hammersmith and Chiswick bends whilst also meeting the requirement to pass through the middle arch of Barnes bridge makes the race distinctive and interesting. The location matters too for the quarter of a million spectators lining the banks of one of the world’s greatest cities, and patronising the riverside pubs. It is a social occasion featuring a sporting event, a celebration marking the passing of winter.

And so to Ely. I love the place so much that I live there. But I can see why the only time that the Oxford and Cambridge crews raced there (because of the second world war in 1944) it was not counted as an official Boat Race. The Thames is liquid history; the Ely stretch of the Great Ouse rather less so. But it is where Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC) train so its rowers know it well.

“I don’t’ think it should be at Ely” says Alex Story, the Olympic rower who was in the victorious Cambridge crews in the 1997 Boat Race and again in 1998 when the course record was set: “The water there is very calm, so there is no stream, no tide. There is always an unpleasant wind. The landscape has no distinguishing features – the cows are the only distractions from the green dullness. It’s narrow, it’s not exciting. It’s a long straight stretch which is good for training but lacks excitement. Staging the Boat Race on the Great Ouse will be a nondescript timepiece between two student crews.”

It is a view shared by Alistair Potts who coxed Story’s record breaking boat in 1998. “Racing at Ely reduces the essence of what the Boat Race is. The bends matter, the landmarks matter, the tide matters: that is the challenge the oarsmen and women want to set themselves. To take that away is sad.”

Yet, at least there will be a Boat Race, of sorts, next year – an opportunity and a privilege denied the Oxford and Cambridge squads of 2020. What is in doubt, however, is the long-term damage that changing the location – and essence – of the event will inflict, particularly if continued for the length of time it takes to repair Hammersmith bridge.

The core audience for watching student rowing is tiny. It is the BBC’s perseverance in televising the Boat Race that does most to keep it in the national – and international – consciousness. A salutary lesson is provided by how interest in the annual Varsity Match at Twickenham has collapsed since it ceased to be televised. Helpfully, the Boat Race’s viewing figures have held up in recent years, continuing to attract in excess of six million viewers. But these numbers may ebb away when cameras pan to an unfamiliar, narrow, waterway running through some flat, boring fields, with more cows than spectators.

Interest in the annual Varsity Match at Twickenham has collapsed since it ceased to be televised

Requiring helicopters, multiple cameras, outside broadcast facilities and technicians, the Boat Race is an expensive and logistically complicated event that some in the Corporation would not be sorry to lose, particularly those who make diversity metrics a key determinant of value. In such an environment, the race cannot risk being adjudged to be on the wane. Paradoxically, the Boat Race has placed a greater burden upon itself by becoming increasingly professional in its methods as well as more diverse and representative of the universities it represents.

For fifty years, the BBC paid for the rights to broadcast the annual fixture. Then in 2004, when the contract was up for renewal, the race’s organisers solicited a considerably higher fee from ITV. But after five years ITV decided the race did not really fit with the audience it wanted. So the Race begged the BBC to take it back. This the Corporation did, but – noting the withdrawal of the competition – drove a hard bargain. Consequently, the BBC enjoys the rights to broadcast it for free.

The situation worsened after the ending of Xchanging’s long-term sponsorship contract. The American bank, BNY Mellon, and its subsidiary, Newton Asset Management, came to the rescue. But Newton’s terms included transforming the tried-and-tested format into the Boat Races with parity of esteem given to the women’s contest. Previously staged at Henley, Oxford’s and Cambridge’s women’s crews have since 2015 shared equal billing on the Tideway with the men.

Viewed dispassionately from a spectator perspective, the women’s race on the Tideway has yet to hit its stride. In contrast to closely contested men’s races since 2015, every Women’s Boat Race has “effectively been a walkover, decided either by a sinking or a crab, and always with a huge qualitative gap between the two crews” says Alex Story who fears that the reform has backfired by “showing up the difference between the sexes too much.”

At any rate, back in 2015, the naysayers were a far smaller minority than some of the media spin implied. As a cox, Alistair Potts was the first Cambridge crew member to compete in both the men’s and women’s boat races, winning both. He recalls that the women’s “feelings of being hard done by were legitimate. It needed fixing. Both clubs overwhelmingly believed that as a showcase for the university and the sport it was right to see both the men and women competing on the Tideway.”

But the change has involved a considerable expansion of the costs without a comparable uptick in revenue to cover it. Until 2015, OUBC and CUBC each chose their Blue Boats from a squad of thirty (unpaid) student rowers, supported by a small fellowship of coaches, staff and volunteers. The costs were manageable. Suddenly, the addition of both women’s squads (supplemented by respective lightweight squads) all requiring equal but distinct training, equipment, facilities, coaches, physios and support staff, expanded the number drawing on stretched resources to nearer two hundred people.

This need not have been a problem if the long-term funding was in place to match it. But in 2017, BNY Mellon’s and Newton’s sponsorship ended. The Race has since attracted some partners, including charitable association with the RNLI, but has not secured the sustained revenue it requires to put on a show enjoyed (until Covid) for free by millions worldwide.

The sponsorship opportunity is considerable, but the current economic circumstances are hardly propitious. Moving from London to Ely is not a relocation towards the corporate sweet-spot and it is key to the Boat Race’s viability that it is restored to the Tideway where it belongs as soon as possible and certainly long before Hammersmith bridge is fully repaired.

It’s the Regency spirit of ‘do something until you fall over’

In the meantime, Alex Story is concerned that the dual effects of anti-elitism and Covid have ushered in a puritanism that is intolerant of what he sees the annual battle of the blues to be, “tradition and all that goes with it – drinks, fun, quirkiness, a new season – for such people is, in truth, a standing reproach to their rigid world view” he suggests. Alistair Potts also worries that something long accepted is now having to justify itself, and taking reinvention as far as a new, if hopefully temporary, location will not help – “Once you’ve pulled the plug on something, restarting it is harder.”

Yet, as Potts sees it, the Boat Race “matters to rowing, it matters to London and it matters to all those millions whose capricious attention is drawn to this Springtime event once a year.” It is a nursery for Olympians but also valuable in its own way: “Second only to an Olympic gold medal is – and I say this as a World Champion myself – a victory in the Boat Race.”

Indeed, the contest remains necessary and has endured precisely because of its peculiarity. It is often described as a remnant of a Victorian, public school, Corinthian spirit. But that is wrong. As Potts points out, it predates such ideals. Dating from 1829, it began before codified Association Football or Rugby, belonging instead to “a time of bare-knuckle boxing, chasing foxes across fields and watching dogs’ tearing each other apart. It’s the Regency spirit of ‘do something until you fall over.’”

It is similar, Potts suggests, to the Grand National, an annual event that dates from the same period and, coincidentally is of comparable length (the Boat Race’s course is 4 miles 374 yards; the Grand National’s is 4 miles 514 yards). That steeplechase was designed “over massive, dangerous fences that would now be unthinkable” but which tradition has largely preserved. The Boat Race, he believes, has a similar ethos: “nobody would invent today a twenty-minutes side-by-side struggle through bend and tide until you half drop dead. It’s older, visceral. It’s a unique challenge the men and women train for, and the public enjoy.”

He pauses, and then concludes, “of course Ely can’t substitute for that.”

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