Boat Race: Boat Race not on BBC isn't right

Christopher Dodd
Saturday 28 February 2004 01:00

When the newsdesk rang me on my feverish sickbed last Monday to say that the BBC had dumped the Boat Race, I thought it must be 1 April. It simply couldn't be that the Beeb had pulled the plug only five weeks before the 150th race. The Boat Race and the BBC are joined by an umbilical chord. They coexist like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

The one is a national occasion and the other is the natural presenter of national occasions.

But it turned out to be 23 February, and true. The epic struggle on 28 March will be the last, at least for five years, to be screened by the Beeb.

A successful raid on their orderly, traditional world has seduced the organisers - and it doesn't feel right.

In 1829 when Oxford first answered Cambridge's challenge by beating them after a foul and a restart, Stephenson's Rocket won the Rainhill steam locomotive trials. Since the race settled on its present course from Putney to Mortlake in 1845, it has rowed through half a dozen reigns, the Industrial Revolution, the rise and fall of the world's greatest empire, and all the developments in technology that order our lives.

Throughout, this private match between students has become a unique, immensely popular gathering, a milestone of the year. Its appeal was broadened in the 19thC by the press, and in the 20thC by the broadcasters - first by the thrills and mysteries of John Snagge's live radio commentaries, and then by television from the bank, the water and the air.

Pause for a moment to consider the challenge that a four-and-a-quarter-mile race on water throws up. The whole shemozzle of the media has to move with it. Wireless transmission from ship to shore was developed for it.

In the case of TV, cameras on moving launches, miniature cameras on racing boats and cameras slung beneath helicopters have all been pioneered for the Boat Race. In the history of BBC engineering, the Boat Race has a special place.

So you might surmise that there is a special relationship between the company of old blues which organises the race on behalf of the clubs - P to M Ltd - and the BBC. No wonder that commentator Barry Davies and their innovative production team are gutted.

Old rowing blues have two things in common: together they invented the awarding of a "blue" for sporting prowess, the only prize for taking part in the race; and they are locked in perpetual point-scoring for the rest of their lives. After this race the traditionalist merchant banker Duncan Clegg (Oxford 1965-66) hands over the reins of organisation to Bradford and Bingley's Christopher Rodrigues (Cambridge 1970-71). The new deal is largely in Rodrigues's court.

I sense a blush of embarrassment beneath Clegg's cap and blazer for the new broom in his final year, not least because the sponsor, Aberdeen Asset Management say that they were also caught on the hop by the promise of an all singing and dancing ITV coverage from 2005.

Meanwhile, the jury is out on timing. After all, the race has produced cracking contests in recent years, culminating in a win for Oxford by a foot last year. It will be impossible to better that on 28 March. Or will it?

I am sure, however, that the Boat Race will endure even if the post-Hutton Beeb doesn't. Today a thanksgiving service at Ely cathedral commemorates Dean Charles Merivale, joint founder of the Boat Race in 1829. A lot of old blues will re-enact the 1944 unofficial wartime race, which was held at Ely. The needle goes on.

Christopher Dodd's 'Battle of the Blues' is published next month. An exhibition on the Boat Race opens on 20 March at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames.

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