Why on earth was I there?

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The Independent Online
AS EVER, it has been a weekend of Boat Race Mania, with surging crowds of unruly Oxford and Cambridge supporters rampaging through the streets of London, teddy bears held aloft as they spot an unsuspecting group of polytechnic students who have wandered into their path by mistake.

At least, that's the way I thought it would be until I made the mistake of attending this widely adored sporting event a few years ago. 'Hey, let's go down to the Boat Race]' we all cried, anxious for amusement. And so we gathered on Putney Bridge, with thousands of other idiots, to await the race with mounting excitement. The crews gathered, the race began, and the two boats whooshed effortlessly down the Thames, disappearing from sight approximately 45 seconds later. And that was it. The race had barely started, but for us it was all over. There was nothing else to do, other than go to the pub. We went to the pub. I didn't even find out who won until the following day.

What we forget, watching television all the time, is that some spectator sports are only spectator sports because they are on television. Go and see them live, and you won't see anything worth seeing, if you see anything at all. As we stood on the bridge that day, we realised that we had never realised that the Boat Race could be as boring as this. Neither had anyone else on the bridge. It may be a wild coincidence, but I have never met anyone who has been to the Boat Race more than once.

Happily, though, this is not just an English phenomenon. Pity the poor fools who go and watch, in person, a day's downhill skiing. What is there to see? Every three minutes a brightly coloured blur passes, but as you do not have David Vine next to you referring to him as 'the Big Swede', that is about as much as you have to go on. Once in a blue moon someone falls over and hurts themselves, but otherwise there's nothing to look forward to besides frostbite and a long walk home. And yet people still go and stand there, occasionally waving their arms around in a desperate attempt to delay death by another 30 minutes. Some experts have identified this condition as 'being Swiss'. Certainly there's no known cure.

Motor racing too is one of the more remarkable spectator sports, if you consider what it actually entails. It is only when you actually go to a race that you begin to appreciate fully the true genius of Murray Walker. Cars pass, and a few minutes later they pass again. By lap three you have really got the hang of it, but then you remember that there are another 57 to go. Beelzebub does have tortures more unutterably fiendish up his sleeve, but not many.

Still, there is always the plight of the cricket fan who buys a ticket for the fourth day of a Test match, when you can be sure that England will be fighting to save the follow-on, or, if rain is threatened, going down with all hands before lunch. And fancy being marooned on one of those faraway tables at a major darts tournament, unable to see anything other than a small, brightly coloured blob in the middle distance, which turns out to be Eric Bristow.

And at least the Boat Race has one enormous advantage: it is not the America's Cup. The unspeakable in full pursuit of the unwinnable - well, it's unwatchable, even if you happen to be in a helicopter flying alongside. But everyone learns their lesson eventually.

If you were at Putney yesterday, you have my heartfelt commiserations.

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