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A degree of equality

April 11, 2015

It takes a special sort of person to start rowing at five in the morning. By rowing, I mean the sport, rather than arguing loudly, although you could argue (loudly) that there is a certain amount of sport in rowing competitively, and just as vigorous a training regime. But for now let’s stick with the concept of rowing (the sport) and the people who willingly get up before the birds on a cold wintry morning to don an implausibly thin piece of blue lycra and perch three inches above a stretch of river that is only a degree off freezing, with a small person yelling at them for three hours. For such is the training regime of your average university rower, and the lifestyle choice of all those men (and hurrah! women) you’ll see lined up, quietly shivering, on the Thames today.

Rowing, for the main part, is a fairly unobtrusive sport. We only really remember we’re actually quite good at it once every four years (it’s the Summer Olympics equivalent of Curling, only with fewer Scottish shouty people) and on one weekend at the beginning of April when thousands of people pledge allegiance to one of two towns in the south of England that they’ve probably never been to, but imagine is a bit like Hogwarts, only with fewer Scottish shouty people. For the rest of the time, rowing sinks into sporting oblivion. No international rowing stars adorn the front pages of the tabloids, leering blearily into 3am paparazzi lenses, whilst fighting a million pound divorce or a battle with alcoholism. You might get the odd one looking a little dazed and confused on a celebrity comedic panel show, reading lame jokes off an autocue and wondering how they ended up sitting next to Sean Locke, but for the most part, rowing has a good reputation – if you do it well enough you get made into a knight, and they all seem very jolly when they chuck the small person into the river at the end.

Well – let me dispel that myth. Although perhaps slightly unpatriotic to mention it, and I may well lose my membership to Cambridge forever more, may I say that those nice young university students you’ll see being interviewed by the lovely Clare Balding later on today have a slightly tarnished reputation in my eyes.

For that punishing training regime I mentioned, the one that sees them perched atop a carbon fibre banana skin at sparrowfart each morning, is one that I know all too well. I live on a boat just outside Cambridge, and due to our 3mm thick walls, and laughable insulation, what happens on the river at 5am basically happens inside my boat. The laughing. The shouting. The swearing. Trust me, the swearing. Inventive, these university types, in the language they use to describe their oars, their freezing cold feet, their colleagues and indeed these pesky barges that get in their way, being so casually parked at the side of (their) river.

So loud their voices! So screechy their oars, when dragged against the sides of your freshly-painted hull! So pleasant, that rocking motion, caused by the wake from their training boat zooming past at 15 knots. So sudden, that moment between deep night-time sleep and falling out of bed in fright. So relaxing, this boat life.

But I kid, of course. Just like every other Cambridgian on Saturday, I will naturally be cheering on the Light Blues, yelling at the Oxford lot to keep their oars on their own side of the river, and feeling a certain amount of pride (and an even larger amount of amusement) that our County’s finest minds are spending their Saturday splashing energetically on a bit of river around Putney Bridge.

And this year will be even better because, for the first time ever (a fact still slightly unbelievable given it’s 2015, and not the 1970s), the women’s race will be fought along the same stretch of river, and on the same day, as the Men’s. You heard that right. Prior to now, the ladies were entitled to race, but away from all the big crowds (presumably who wouldn’t want to see such an un-ladylike spectacle) and on a day when people weren’t quite so excited by the Main Event that someone with a whistle, and enough interest, could be found to set them off.

So – happy days. As befits the reputations of two of our best, and most progressive, educational establishments, both sexes will now be afforded a degree of equality, and those mums and dads who have packed their kids off to Cambridge and Oxford will now be able to cheer on both their sons and daughters from the same stretch of river on Race Day. And get a glimpse of Clare Balding. It’s a great leap forward for women’s sport, especially one so steeped in tradition, and with such ties to academia, and if the commentators can restrain themselves from making wet t-shirt remarks, it will be a great day.

And if Cambridge does win (they must be on a mission to recover those eleven lost lengths last year), I will give them a cheery wave from my porthole the next time they go past at daybreak, instead of my usual growl. Possibly. Come on you Blues!!

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One Comment
  1. I shall be cheering for Oxford.
    Only joking!
    Nice post. Rather you than me being rudely awakened by the oarsman (and woman!)

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