View from the sofa: Posh women row the same course as posh blokes, and you call that making history?

The Boat Races BBC 1

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The Independent Online

Forgive us if we haven’t strung up the bunting to mark the first time women have contested the Boat Race on the tideway of the Thames. Forgive us if we shouted “Enough!” at the 465th time Clare Balding mentioned the word “history” from her position on the banks of the river on Saturday afternoon.

Forgive me if I fail to tell my two young daughters that “I was there” when 16 women, mostly from posh schools, raced for the first time on the same patch of water on the same day as 16 men from posh schools.

Because an elitist race broadcast on television does not a revolution make.

Sure, within the bounds of the event itself, it was a momentous occasion. As many a former rower said in the build-up to the race, there is no sane reason why women should not compete on the same level as men. It is, as Lisa Walker, a 1997 competitor, said, “a bit like [asking whether] Paula Radcliffe can run the marathon”.

The only reason why women had been shunted off to Henley while the men enjoyed the adulation of well-oiled spectators in pubs lining the river for the best part of 100 years, we learnt, was “because there were a lot of old fuddy-duddies who needed a kick up the pants”.

Natasha Townsend, the Oxford assistant coach, was more forthright. She said: “Someone asked me, ‘Are the women going to row the whole course?’ I felt like punching them in the face.”

A fair point. But such was the po-faced earnestness of the BBC coverage, by the time the crews lined up at the start, Townsend wasn’t the only one wanting to plant a fist in someone’s, erm, boat race.

Because the Boat Race was presented to us as something that actually matters to the rest of the population, rather than a race between two unashamedly elite universities.

Balding even commented that the Boat Race rivals the London Marathon as a spectacle – a frankly absurd statement.

Call me old-fashioned, but watching 36,000 people from all walks – and runs – of life finish a 26.2-mile race is a heck of a lot more inspiring than witnessing Oxford University students win a (hopelessly one-sided, as it turned out) race against their equally privileged Cambridge counterparts.

All the points Balding made about “parity and fairness” were true of sport in general. And the comment from former Oxford cox Zoe De Toledo that the fact both sexes were competing on the same course “gives other women in the country something to strive for” would have held water, if you’ll pardon the pun, if she had been talking about a contest that wasn’t so darned exclusive.

Every weekend thousands of women compete in the same sports as men, with little or no publicity. Sports such as football, rugby, cycling and athletics, with the same rules and challenges for both sexes.

The reasons for the lack of fanfare are many and complex, with sponsorship issues and the attitudes of the media and governing bodies all part of the problem.

If women’s football, for instance, were given coverage equal to men’s, then it would be time for celebration. But the Boat Race? In the rarefied halls of Oxbridge, Saturday’s race is no doubt cause to pop the champagne. But the rest of the country can keep the prosecco on ice until there is some real history made.