Comment: A tradition to cherish

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The Independent Online
FEW SUBJECTS polarise the nation so neatly as Oxbridge sport. To some, events such as the Boat Race and the Varsity Match are valuable parts of our heritage, as reassuring in their regularity as Christmas. To others, particularly by being televised by the BBC, they are a ludicrous anachronism.

There is much to be said for the latter view. Is it really a good use of licence-payers' money to broadcast this Tuesday's rugby match between Oxford and Cambridge - and not, say, the All Blacks' match against the Combined Services last Tuesday? Given the usual quality of Varsity play, not even that minority of viewers who have the time and the inclination to watch televised rugby on weekday afternoons can feel wholly satisfied with that decision of the BBC's. Similarly, not even aficionados of student rowing can find as much to interest them in the Boat Race as they would in a race involving, say, London University.

Televising Varsity sport makes scarcely more sense than televising the Eton-

Harrow cricket match. In this would-be classless age, what could be more absurd than to treat the antics of our privileged youth as if they mattered?

But there is a catch in this argument, just as there is in many rational, democratic arguments: the people disagree. More than 60,000 will crowd into Twickenham to see the 112th Varsity Match: almost as many as saw England's historic victory last weekend. More than 7 million watched this year's Boat Race on television.

Indeed, Varsity sport is more popular than it has been for years. Average attendances at the Varsity Match in the early Nineties have been almost double what they were in the early Eighties, while the television audience for the event has doubled (to 1.2 million) in the past five years.

The most important reason for this is that, thanks largely to the achievements of Geoff Cooke and Will Carling, rugby union is on an unprecedented and lucrative high. Crowds flock to Twickenham's big occasions because they are there.

But there is also another reason: millions of ordinary people like Varsity sport, for reasons as comforting to sentimentalists as they are irritating to rationalists. Its very irrelevance is what attracts people.

A meritocratic approach to student sport might be more sensible than our present approach, but it would miss the point. If quality of performance were all that mattered, no one would watch student sport anyway. Even at its best - as at the World Student Games, say - it tends to be bland. A society in which no other fare was permitted would be intolerably grey.

It may be politically incorrect, but millions of Britons still value most of their country's traditions, with all their quirks and contradictions. Sport, in particular, thrives on tradition. Politicians and sports administrators who forget this do so at their peril. To denigrate the Varsity Match would be akin to denigrating Christmas.