Rowing / Boat Race: Schuller's late inclusion reflects meritocracy: Tradition is only part of the Boat Race's appeal. Paul Hayward reports

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The Independent Online
LITTLE Englanders will enjoy moaning about this year's Boat Race. 'Chap comes over here,' they will say, 'and shoves one of our boys out of the Oxford crew. German, apparently. Fellow by the name of Schuller. Not on, is it?'

Another Boat Race, another saloon bar controversy. Philipp Schuller, a 27-year-old German and postgraduate at St Catherine's college, Oxford, has displaced a younger Old Etonian undergraduate called Ed Haddon in the line-up for Saturday's heave-ho along the Thames, and to the traditionalists, this late substitution marks yet another dilution of the Corinthian spirit that is supposed to govern this odd ritual.

Six nationalities will be represented by the Oxford crew on Saturday, and three by Cambridge. Oxford will field an Australian, an American, a Bosnian Serb, a Canadian and a German (Schuller). For the first time in the 139-race history of the event, two German students will race against each other, because Cambridge, too, have selected a visiting scholar from the republic in Dirk Bangert, a physicist of some note.

The national appeal of the Boat Race is one of sport's enduring conundrums. Shoppers tell each other in Sainsbury's: 'It's the Boat Race today,' and Grandstand makes it one of the centrepieces of its Saturday broadcast. Yet few people can say they managed to make it to Oxbridge as a student or that they have heard of any of the participants.

On paper, at least, it is a soporific contest - a sort of high-speed slave ship race - which appears elitist and estoeric to all but those who have been initiated in the mysteries of the boat room.

So why is it so revered? 'Because it's the grandmother of all races,' Schuller said as he scanned the Thames at Putney this week after escaping photographers who insisted he pose in head-to-head shots with his compatriot, Bangert.

To get Schuller talking about his own late selection and the cosmopolitan nature of modern Boat Race crews, you have only to light the touch-paper and stand well back.

'There is a tendency,' Schuller says, 'for people to say that it's not really the Boat Race anymore. That they're bringing in professionals. But that's not true. You can't have one of the most respected races in the world and then limit it to English people between the ages of 19 and 21.

'When I came here (in January), Matthew Pinsent (the Oxford president) told me it was very late and I was unlikely to make the team. But on the day we went for whoever would make the boat go fastest. It was done entirely on merit.'

Another groan is that postgraduates have taken over the Boat Race at the expense of the younger students for whom the event was designed. But this is a political product of our times. Universities have sharply increased their intake of postgraduates, particularly from abroad, because such students bring in valuable tuition fees which can be used to subsidise the underfunded, undergraduate sector.

'I came here (via Berlin and Harvard) precisely because I wanted to do a certain degree,' Schuller says, 'and the professor I wanted to do it with is here and nowhere else. The majority of foreigners come here with the right academic credentials.'

Schuller also believes that the international complexion of Saturday's competition defuses the theory that it is contested only by those from the highest social strata. He says: 'If you look at the teams, they contain people from all over the world, and it's not really a class thing anymore because Oxford and Cambridge have become meritocratised over the last decade. If it looks elitist, that's only because it's a good selling point.'

Schuller does admit, though, to being perplexed by the amount of attention the Boat Race receives in Britain. 'It's surprising because here, as in other countries, people couldn't care less about rowing,' he says. 'Yet apparently, every Englishman or Briton has an opinion on who should win the Boat Race. Everybody is glued to the TV set, everbody is lining the banks.'

Not that he, or any of the other oarsmen, will be aware of the audience. Schuller, who is a triathlete in his spare time and looks fit enough to run from Putney to Padstow, will tell you that he will be in acute pain after just one third of the race.

'The point is that you want to find the frame of mind that will override this kind of pain, that will enable you go on in spite of it, even thrive on it,' he says.

'If there is one psychological trick it's to tell yourself that this is the one event you've always wanted to do, worked for, and that you've got to go for everything. Now.'

Deny him the chance because he has the wrong passport? Now that really would make the Boat Race a sham.

(Photograph omitted)