The Oxbridge art of rowing as you row

Cambridge buy talent, Oxford cry foul ... but the Boat Race has always been like that, writes Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
"Cambridge University Boat Club has set up a memorial bursary in honour of Alf Twinn, the former university boatman. Its purpose is to assist oarsmen who are unable for financial reasons to take up a place at the university ..."

It all began with a small ad in the Times and ended yesterday - in so far as it can be said to have ended - with the president of the Oxford University boat crew threatening that today's 141st Boat Race might be the last unless Cambridge abandons the policy of buying in top oarsmen from abroad.

"Cambridge are using a systematic method of buying in international rowers and that is unfair," said Jeremiah McLanahan, the Oxford club's president. "We think it is contrary to the spirit of the Boat Race."

There are those who might think such an accusation sounds rich coming from a man who insists on rowing while wearing a baseball cap backwards, as if determined to flaunt his transatlantic origins. (He was Middlesex School, Massachusetts and Yale University before his current Pembroke, Oxford). And that is not to mention the rest of the Dark Blue crew, which includes three other Americans, a Norwegian, a man born in Belgrade and two of dual nationality. But the introduction of cheque-book rowing brings competition between the two ancient rivals to a new low, the Oxford men insist.

Who are they trying to kid? Even the most cursory examination of Boat Race history reveals that disputation and acrimony are no strangers to the event. Gentlemanly gentility is long dead. One of the greatest of recent Oxford oarsmen, Al Shealy, was wont to stand naked in the changing- room in the run-up to the 1977 race, screaming: "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." That he was quoting General Patton was his only genuflection to the disciplines of academe.

His example is fondly quoted by Dan Topolski, the Oxford coach. Topolski was recalled to the post after the team was defeated in the previous two races, in an attempt to restore the domination that Oxford enjoyed under his coaching in the 1970s and Eighties, when it established its best-ever sequence with 10 successive victories. He is not known as a Mr Nice-Guy. When the Oxford crew mutinied in 1987, Topolski turned to the rump of reluctant also-rows who remained and told them: "My intention is to turn you lot into hard, aggressive bastards. I want you vicious." He succeeded. Against the odds, they won.

The truth is that disagreements, disputes and dastardly deeds have been the norm ever since Charles Wordsworth, a nephew of the poet, helped to start the event in 1829. Only two years later an entry in the Cambridge University Boat Club records began to exploit the most basic of puns at the heart of the sport. "The terms rowing and rowing had been confounded," the president wrote after a challenge by Cambridge had been turned down on the grounds that there was a cholera epidemic in London.

The rowing and the rowing has continued ever since with run-ins over rules and wrangling over resolutions, skirmishes over starts and fracas over finishes, spats over styles and encounters over equipment. There have been resignations and sackings, intrigues and insurrections, walk- outs and full-scale mutinies. All of which have only been surpassed in entertainment value when the boats sank - as when Cambridge hit a barge in 1984 and Oxford, with the first woman cox, sank after winning in 1981.

In 1834 the race was called off after an altercation over the venue: Oxford wanted Henley, Cambridge demanded the Tideway; Oxford suggested Maidenhead, Cambridge rejected that. And then the participants fell out over timing - Oxford wanted early summer, Cambridge spring.

The seeds of the present discord were sown in 1847 when Oxford passed a resolution forbidding the use of professional watermen as coaches; Cambridge refused to agree and for two years there was no race. Watermen, the Oxonian purists lamented, with their short, choppy action, "tended to lower the beauty and polish of the perfect 8-oar."

And so it went on. As early as 1840 there was division about whether men who had taken their degrees - "bachelors" - were eligible to row (today's Oxford team are, bar the cox, graduates). In 1849 Cambridge were disqualified for cutting across Oxford's water. In 1877 the finishing judge was not at his post, and after much disputation Oxford were denied a victory and a dead heat was decreed. In 1882 the starter dropped his handkerchief prematurely and both crews started, and then stopped, before discovering that no false start had been declared. The starting pistol which was then introduced proved no more reliable: in 1903 it stuck at half-cock, Cambridge drifted off, Oxford started late, neither was recalled and Cambridge won amid considerable controversy.

Improvements in technology only provided new grounds for contention. In 1957 the Oxford coach, Antony Rowe, resigned over the use of an American rig and the imposition of severe training schedules. Style had been sacrificed to the naked need to win, he felt, and the amateur spirit was being lost. "An American accent is creeping into Oxford rowing," one newspaper portentously opined.

The accent grew stronger. In 1987, when Oxford's five American oarsmen rebelled against Topolski's coaching methods and selection policy, and dropped out. Poetic justice was done when the de-Yanked team triumphed.

Now the fear is that all too soon both teams will consist entirely of hulking great imports from American and other alien campuses. Last year Thorsten Streppelhoff and Peter Hoeltzenbein were imported from the German national team into the winning Cambridge crew. Likewise was the US Olympic rower, Malcolm Baker, the year before.

"The German pair were considering coming to Oxford until Cambridge came in waving their chequebook," lamented Jeremiah McLanahan yesterday. The Alf Twinn bursary, he claims, will formalise the arrangement; its first holder is Scott Brownlee, the New Zealand international, who is now in the Fens on a one-year management studies course.

In the best traditions of the race, Cambridge are unrepentant. "The Oxford crew are all being funded from private sources - they may be scholarships, they may be rich parents," said one of the bursary selectors, Chris Baillieu, a Cambridge blue and 1976 Olympic silver medal winner. "I can't see any real logical distinction between what they're doing and what we're doing. I hope we're not going to have to ultimately fund the whole squad, but I don't think this is something which is going to go away - the pressures are so great. So I think there'll be an increase in bursaries rather than a diminution."

Sheer rowing power, in all this, is not the only determinant of victory. Choppy water and high winds so often intervene. The Boat Race would not be the same without them.