Rowing: Red-faced Redgrave

Stan Hey sees a famous race confirm its status as a serious occasion
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On Friday night Britain's most famous oarsman, Steve Redgrave, had called the Boat Race "a bit of a Mickey Mouse event in some respects" and went on to describe it as "probably the most boring rowing race around".

As Redgrave was down to present the Beefeater Trophy to the winners yesterday it may be presumed that he was being diplomatic. But as both Varsity crews proved yesterday, Redgrave was way off beam with his assessment, for the two crews contributed to one of the best races of modern times as they swapped the lead on several occasions with the final outcome not being decided until well inside the final mile.

The race was a tremendous tribute to both sets of oarsmen - Oxford for their considerable improvements on last year, Cambridge for their continuing excellence - and perhaps more importantly in the long term it also confirmed its status as a genuine sporting contest which is now beyond public ridicule.

Oxford's President had been deposed from the Blue boat by Oxford's Dutch coach, Rene Mijnders, becoming the first president to suffer such an indignity during his year in office. Bellamy at least did his university a service by winning the toss and claiming the advantage of the Surrey station. Against that, however, was another crushing win for Goldie, the Cambridge second boat, which underlined the reservoir of talent the Light Blues could call upon. Goldie's midweek sprint victories over the blue boat had provoked upheaval in the seniors with the crews' alignment being hastily reshuffled, conjuring up images of deck chairs on the Titanic.

Thankfully the conditions were much more benign than those who had expected sinkings, but there may have been certain ghoulish elements on the riverbanks hoping for the next best thing, either a clash of oars or one of the boats hitting a submerged supermarket trolley. That threat never occurred but, from the start which Oxford plainly edged, the two crews were locked together, blades inches apart, as if they were recreating an ancient sea battle between Greeks and Persians.

The Cambridge cox, Kevin Whyman, was plainly determined to nullify any advantage the Surrey bend was going to yield to Oxford by staying as close as he could to the Dark Blue boat. These tactics produced a thrilling spectacle but strained the patience of the race umpire, Tom Cadoux-Hudson, whose repeated hysterical warnings to Cambridge began to threaten his voice.

It was indeed miraculous that the crews' blades did not rip each other apart as Cambridge took brinkmanship to its very edge. But the visceral excitement of this version of hand to hand combat was in danger of masking Oxford's determined performance. The Oxford stroke, Tim Foster, proudly wearing his Tottenham Hotspur baseball cap, seemed to infuse belief into his crew as he beat out a rhythm to keep Oxford's bow just in front, whilst negotiating the choppier waters which prevailed over the first two miles. But at the high water mark of Oxford's lead, the Cambridge stroke, James Ball, in his Reservoir Dogs sunglasses graphically signalled Cambridge's retaliation with a shout to the cox of "Come on!" which was as easy to lip read as Robbie Fowler's Highbury confession.

From that moment on Cambridge reeled Oxford in, their rhythm and graceful blade work turning the final stages of this boat race into a Riverdance. As they reached the winning post the victorious Goldie crew were already wading in the water to celebrate their university's double success, and the senior boat responded with whoops and war cries which echoed off the arches of Chiswick Bridge, as due tribute was paid to Oxford. Not Mickey Mouse after all, but Lion Kings.