Oxford vs. Cambridge: The Boat Race

This Famed Regatta Along the Thames Trains Scholar-Athletes for the Olympics

The Boat Race, held this year for the 153rd time between the ancient university rivals of Oxford and Cambridge is unique in status and tradition – so much so that 250,000 spectators gather along the river Thames to cheer the teams along while another 100 million follow the race on television in the UK and abroad. Few sports events have larger audiences.

Held for the first time in 1829, the Oxford-Cambridge race along the Thames River in London follows a 6,779 meter stretch along a “S” shaped curve through the English capital. Compared to a normal rowing course of just 2,000 meters, the race is tough.

Croatian Ante Kusurin, first oar forward, rowing for Oxford in The Boat Race against Cambridge in front of 250,000 spectators | Photo: Phil Searle

After a slow start in the early years, it has been held annually since 1856 save for the world wars years between 1915 and 1919 and again from 1940 to 1945. A boat holding eight crew members, the largest boat of its kind, is steered by a coxswain – “cox” for short – a man of small stature who sits in the stern and steers the boat.

The crowds line up along the river while dozens of motorboats with spectators and umpires follow the race close behind the shells. With cameras onboard, every grin on the rowers’ faces is captured, as they edge closer to the finish with each stroke. One of the few sporting events that still charges no entrance fee in London, The Boat Race draws both people who are interested in the sport as well as people just out for a good time. The cheers of the thousands of fans are deafening, and rowers that experience the race firsthand describe the experience as unforgettable.

“The noise of the start is so loud you can barely hear the cox,” Croatian Ante Kusurin, this years stroke (pace giver) for the Oxford boat, told The Vienna Review during an interview conducted over the internet community site Facebook.

The race he stroked had been a dream come true since he had heard about the sport of rowing many years before. He used international rowing experience to earn his place in the boat, including a junior world championship gold and several senior world championship participations.  His side include a further five world championship rowers while the Cambridge boat include an impressive four Olympians (one Olympic champion from Sydney 2000), two of which currently hold World Championship titles. Another two rowers in the Cambridge boat have competed at the world championship level.

But even while the merits of the athletes that compete in the race hint at the professionalism of the rowers, they remain amateurs and full time students for their respective universities, universally recognised as among a handful of the finest and most academically challenging in the world.

All rowers must be officially enrolled in their respective universities, and unlike most other university sporting events, the rowers are not accepted into their colleges based on their athletic ability but rather on academic ability alone.  In fact, there are no sports scholarships at either university, nor any favouritism, such as lower standards and being excused from other University work, for athletes competing in the race.

Once the potential rowers are admitted to the university, the selection process slowly dismisses the lesser athletes starting roughly half a year before the race.  The rowers that make the cut often report that the training they receive can be used in their athletic career. Take the notable example of Matthew Pinsent, who competed for Oxford three times during a four year period in which he won two world championship titles, a bronze and his first Olympic title, who later on went on to win a total to four Olympic and 10 world championships titles, while competing undefeated for nearly 10 years.

Cambridge was named the favorite before this year’s race and in fact went on to win the race held on Apr. 7, in a tight battle that lasted nearly 18 minutes. But Oxford was never far behind, and at the turning point in the race, with the two boats racing side by side, the Oxford boat was ordered to move slightly putting them outside the current where Cambridge stayed. Oxford began to lose the lead, and never got it back. Many saw the umpire’s decision as unjust.

“It might have been a different outcome altogether if we (Oxford) had stayed in the current a little bit longer,” Kusurin said. “They were in the stream during the most critical part of the race.”

But the race has been rowed, and the winning trophy claimed. And the rowing goes on for all of the participants, most of whom row for their respective national teams.  Kusurin, for example, will head back to Croatia where he will prepare for next year’s Olympic Games. His Masters is due to be finished later this spring, but he might return to Oxford for a Doctorate and a new racing challenge in 2009.

In the meantime, academics can wait. Like most fine athletes, he would do almost anything for a chance at the Olympic Games.

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