Op-Ed: Thoughts on The 2012 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race

Oxford launching (Photo: © B. Kitch)
Like many people in the rowing community watching all over the world today, I found the events of the Boat Race difficult to stomach, for a number of reasons. While I, along with many others, had expected something of a one-sided affair with Oxford being the favorite, the race was developing into what might have been an all-time great, with the crews level pegging through the halfway point, and Oxford just beginning to take advantage of their station as they drew near to the Bandstand. And then it stopped.

Everyone already knows what happened as a result of the 'boat race swimmer.' The boats were forced to restart, and there was a clash that resulted in the loss of Hanno Wienhausen's blade, effectively ending the race as they passed the Chiswick Eyot. Congratulations to Cambridge, who should be lauded for mettle given the circumstances, and who fought well when there was a fight to be had.

The first thing that crosses your mind has to do with safety–surely that man had fallen into the river and, luckily, the umpires spotted him and halted the race so as to protect him from harm. Then, anger, at the realization upon seeing his self-congratulatory smirk (as the Oxford oarsmen carefully maneuvered their blades to avoid hitting him) that he had placed himself there on purpose. Then despair, at the thought of all the hard work that every one of the athletes involved has done over the past months, and even years, to arrive that this point, only to be forced to put their dreams aside in order to protect the safety of a malicious, or at least completely misguided, intruder. Then the unavoidable sense of irony, no doubt entirely lost on the swimmer, that it was only the care and decency of those engaged in competition that prevented the swimmer from suffering serious injury.

The first question people want to ask, of course, is 'why?' But I hope that no one does. If it is protest that this person is after, then there are many ways to protest without destroying the work of others. In the words of William Zeng, Rhodes Scholar and two seat of the Oxford Blue Boat:

When I missed your head with my blade I knew only that you were a swimmer, and if you say you are a protester then, no matter what you say your cause may be, your action speaks too loudly for me to hear you. I know, with immediate emotion, exactly what you were protesting. You were protesting the right of seventeen young men and one woman to compete fairly and honorably, to demonstrate their hard work and desire in a proud tradition. You were protesting their right to devote years of their lives, their friendships, and their souls to the fair pursuit of the joys and the hardships of sport. You, who would make a mockery of their dedication and their courage, are a mockery of a man.

The ancient Greeks, who invented sport as we know it, also knew just the punishment for this sort of thing. There was once a man, who, desperate for fame, tried to make the historical record by burning down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The response? The local authorities forbade the mention of his name.

Unfortunately, the historian Theopompus recorded the name of Herostratus along with the record of the event. The modern media will have this swimmer's name everywhere over the next 24 hours, and that is a real shame. There are many more important things in this world than sport, and the athletes showed that they were conscious of this even while in the midst of the race they'd spent the last six months training for. But, because of all the troubles of the real world, there is something sacred about a closely fought race–something pure, simple, and greater than the sum of its parts, like the sport of rowing itself. That purity of effort, that magic, which is born of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another, was before our eyes today as Cambridge took on Oxford, only to be lost in the wake of an utterly selfish act.


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