Boat race under a cloud after Oxford controversy

In 1944 the University Boat Race was rowed on a stretch of the Great Ouse river in Ely, Cambridgeshire instead of along the traditional course, from Putney to Mortlake on the Thames Tideway. The move came about because it was deemed too dangerous to stage the race in wartime London as the city was under sustained threat of attack by Doodlebugs.

Photographs from that day show a sizable crowd gathering at the finish line in what looks, in the overcoats, hats and scarves being worn, like miserable weather. A heavy, wintry gloom seems to have settled over the river. Seventy-seven years later, for only the second time in its 166-year history, the race has again been shifted to Ely. And this time the clouds hanging over it are not meteorological.

This was already a race unlike any other because of covid restrictions. Now it is being staged under a thickening pall of alleged impropriety.

Allegations of institutional negligence became public this week when a female member of the Oxford women’s boat club claimed she was allegedly ignored by both the club and university authorities when she had filed a complaint of sexual assault against a high-performance male athlete. Of one thing we can be sure: Sunday’s will now be a race unlikely to be viewed solely as a sporting contest.

So, what, beyond fevered speculation, can we expect? Well, for a start, nothing will look familiar. Normally on Boat Race day, tens of thousands of people throng the Thames for a view of the student rowers heaving by. All along the course, well-refreshed spectators pack the riverside pubs, cycle in dozens along the towpath and, as they crowd the steps of the waterside boat houses, get their feet soaked by the wash of the flotilla following the rowers.

Given the need to adhere to pandemic restrictions and stage the race effectively behind closed doors, it was impossible for it to happen along its normal route. Plus, Hammersmith Bridge is in such a hazardous condition, it was reckoned dangerous to pass underneath it.

Looking at the alternatives, the course at Henley, where the annual Regatta is staged, may provide perfect race conditions but it is almost as hard to restrict public access as on the Tideway. The part of the Thames where Oxford train, which runs close to the town of Wallingford, is not significantly better. So, the stretch of the Great Ouse on which the Cambridge crew train was considered the most appropriate alternative. Largely because, unlike the other possible venues, there are no towpaths and the road that runs parallel can be closed for the afternoon. Plus, the two main locations where numbers can gather – at the start, by the boat house, and the finish, near the Swan on the River pub at Littleport – are easily sealed off to public access.

It means what we will see on television, mostly via pictures from an unmanned drone, will be very different. There will be none of the familiar landmarks of the race, no passing Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium, or the grand Harrods Furniture Depository or speeding under Barnes Bridge (or, indeed, any bridge at all). This is a stretch of river so bereft of points of interest that distance markers have been erected to let the coxes know precisely where they are.

After an initial bend, the course is almost arrow straight. The conditions, too, are more predictable: the straight line reduces variation. On the Tideway, what appears to be a millpond can quickly, once round a bend, turn into a squall. It means, if the forecast is good, boats will be able to go out without the heavy mechanical pumps on board that are a critical requirement on the Thames. If so, times could be quicker.

The flat nature of the course also suggests there will be less of the arcane pre-race talk about which side of the river (or “station”) the crews favour. Unlike the Tideway, the water does not run fastest in a groove running roughly down the middle: the flow is as quick right across the river. Although Andrew Cotter, the BBC race commentator, believes, because of the wind direction, there may be slight advantage in being on the western side, it is unlikely there will be relentless jockeying for position that characterises the early stages of the race on the Thames as teams seek out the fastest water. Though given the habitual sense of competition among Boat Race coxes, that should not preclude clashes of oars. Not least because both boats will seek to get directly in front of their opponent, thus requiring them to row through churned-up waves.

There is, however, one area in which there might be marginal gain for the Cambridge teams: familiarity. Since they were allowed back in boats in March as pandemic restriction eased, the light blue crews have rowed this stretch incessantly.

“Yes, there is a home advantage, but there’s also a home disadvantage,” Sarah Winckless, the men’s race umpire, says. “Oxford will be travelling to a new venue and that gets the body ready. That’s what you do when you go racing, these little triggers make you believe it is happening. Cambridge will be in the same old place. Familiarity could breed complacency. The key is to get their excitement levels up.”

Besides, given that Oxford train on a remarkably similar stretch of water, the gap between what they are used to and the course will be far narrower than when they are obliged to engage with the foaming waters of the Tideway.

The big question of this week, however, is now this: how might the pre-race furore shadow performance? Will it have any effect on who wins? The crews have been in the traditional pre-race purdah since the story broke, so it is impossible to hear directly what effect it has had on their preparations.

It is understood the women’s crews intend to wear ribbons, which can be used to signify support for sexual assault victims. But otherwise, when they get to the start line, it is unlikely there will be visible sign that this is different. In any case, when the starting signal sounds, the resulting pain they will all be feeling will subsume any hint of issue. At least for the next 15 minutes.