It is the most traditional, idiosyncratic, and curiously popular event in the British sporting calendar. But this year the Boat Race, which has been staged on a four-mile-and-374-yard stretch of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake since 1845, has been forced to tear up the script. The result, say organisers, is one of the more intriguing – and unpredictable races – in its long history.
Because of the pandemic and the closure of Hammersmith Bridge, both men’s and women’s races have been decamped nearly 90 miles to the Great Ouse in rural Cambridgeshire, where they will be run on a shorter and straighter three-mile course between Ely and Littleport. And instead of being accompanied by the shouts and cries of 250,000 fans scrunched along the Thames, all the Oxford and Cambridge crews will hear will be the splash of oar on water as the event is closed to the public. Anyone trying to sneak in to watch faces a £200 fine.
There is a third randomising factor too. As amateur athletes, the crews have been subject to the same lockdown restrictions as the general public. So rather than spend hours on the river, honing their strokes and gelling as teams, they have – until very recently – been forced to train alone in their homes, rowing machines parked next to textbooks and coaches barking instructions on Zoom.
“It makes this year more unpredictable than ever,” says George Gilbert, chair of the race operations committee. “It’s not necessarily the crew that has the best raw talent that will win, but the ones that gelled quicker once they got back on the water a couple of weeks ago – and have the better team spirit.
“Historically, crews would also have private matches against other universities, from which you can draw some sort of inference about relative speed, but obviously we haven’t had any of that this year either,” he adds.
Organisers began to look for alternative locations for this year’s Boat Race almost immediately after 2020’s race was cancelled with a week’s notice due to Covid-19. The search took them across the country, from the south coast to Scotland, before they plumped for Ely due to its remoteness and because the local geography meant that they could close public footpaths and roads. There is a historical link too: in 1944 one of the wartime unofficial Boat Races was staged there.
“Obviously this year’s course will affect the race – we just don’t know how,” says Gilbert. “One of the key things about the Boat Race, in fact what makes it so different, is that it is significantly longer than the 2,000m most people are used to rowing for. Having a flat out sprint off the start to glean an advantage at Hammersmith Bridge, and then hanging on is an essential part of it. Will something similar still happen this year or will they go at a more even pace? We just don’t know.”
There has been another minor revolution too. For the first time since the men’s race began, in 1829, it will have a female umpire, Sarah Winckless. “I believe you have to see it to want to be it,” she said, when asked whether her role might inspire other women. The 47-year-old, who won an Olympic bronze medal in the double sculls in 2004, also expects to be busy when the men’s race gets underway at 4.50pm on Sunday. “I’m holding the dreams of the athletes in my hands,” she said. “Hopefully I say go, the coxes do their job and we have an exciting but quiet race from my perspective. However, the truth is I don’t expect that to happen.”
The bookies make Oxford slight favourites to win the 166th edition of the men’s race, and to close the overall gap on Cambridge – who lead by 84-80 with one dead heat. Meanwhile Cambridge’s women are 1-9 on shots to secure a hat-trick of victories and extend their 44-30 lead over Oxford.
Whatever happens, it is a surefire bet that millions will tune into the BBC to watch proceedings unfold. So why does the Boat Race retain its curious appeal, even among people with no particular interest in rowing or the universities involved?
“My personal view is that it is sport in its purest form,” says Gilbert. “There’s no money. There’s no lucrative contracts. There’s no medals. You either win or you lose. That’s it. I remember when I was younger being struck by a building in the centre of Cambridge, which lists all the names of everybody who’s raced in the Boat Race. Next to each name is just a single word: won or lost. And that’s it. It is sport in its purest, Spartan form.”