Boat race is still elitist, just not in the way Trenton thinks

Each of the crews next Sunday has an Olympic medalist from last year

The Oxford crew get ready for a training session  ahead of the University  Boat Race against Cambridge. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

The Oxford crew get ready for a training session ahead of the University Boat Race against Cambridge. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images


A sport’s sponsor can say a lot about its place on the social ladder. The League of Ireland for instance still carries the rather greasy tang of its notorious KFC sponsorship decades ago. Hurling has Guinness, all salt-of-the-earth and I-knows-what-I-likes solidity.

Gaelic has the Ulster Bank while rugby has its big-brother-living-in-London boss, RBS. And this Sunday, rugger is going down to Putney Bridge to enviously watch long thin boats being rowed down the Thames with an exclusivity it can only dream of.

Know who the main Boat Race sponsor is? It’s BNY Mellon. Nope, me neither. That’s how posh the Boat Race is. Its sponsors are discreet – no “Haaaaaarvey Norman” hard-sell here.

For what it’s worth, BNY is an American company operating in that impenetrable world of corporate bullshit referred to as “investment management”. Their bumph says they handle over $26 trillion – that’s trillion – in assets, which beats the hell out of any Centra or Super Valu you might care to mention.

And there’s nothing so mundane as beer among the Boat Race’s other sponsorship “partners”. The drinkey bit is supplied by Bollinger – naturally – and there’s a crowd called Hunters that make, wait for it, wellies: designer wellies, of course, not fit for purpose in any cowshed or outhouse we might recognise.

So that’s boots, suits and bolly: perfect for something as posh as the cream of Oxbridge inducing multiple hernias for nothing more than the glory of securing a “blue” and a possible quickie behind the boat-shed with Imogen.

Anyway, the 159th running – rowing? – of the Boat Race takes place this Sunday. Oxford are long-odds on to win for the 77th time, in case you’re interested, which, if you’re true-blue Irish Gael, and not into quirky English, you’re probably not.

It’s 100-1 a dead-heat, which isn’t the most stupid bet imaginable. In 1879, there was a dead-heat; although admittedly the judge on duty was thrown down pissed under a bush when the boats went by him.

History is something the Boat Race has in spades, albeit mostly rather bland and proper, with a minimum of knobbled coxes or mischievous holes drilled in hulls; But history nonetheless.

There’s certainly unlikely to be anything as colourful as last year’s interruption, when an expensively-educated posh boy called Trenton jumped into the Thames, like a watery Emily Davison, and swam about the oars, meaning the race had to be stopped. Trenton objected, it seems, to the Boat Race’s elitism.

Which is a bit like objecting to Michael Jordan cos he’s tall, or Frankie Dettori cos he’s short, or Ronan O’Gara cos he’s chippy. The whole point of the Boat Race is elitism.

Does going to Cambridge or Oxford come cheap? It does not. Does it require serious grey-matter to get there if you ain’t got serious green-stuff? It sure does. Is that egalitarian, or fair? Of course it isn’t, but what’s fairness got to do with Oxbridge, or anything really? And what indeed has the Boat Race got to do with sport?

There are plenty of watery types who’ll tell you the annual Oxford v Cambridge showdown is a sham, a travesty of what real rowing is. But since, apart from the Olympics, real rowing has about as much chance of getting on primetime telly as Chubby Brown has of appearing on C-Beebies, they might be more grateful for the profile boost that comes with a corporate wet t-shirt contest that manages to get a six million audience on BBC.

Certainly it’s easy to sneer at the Boat Race – and fun too. But what it has always been is an event: one of those strange occasions when English society stares indulgently back to an idealised Brideshead past where even the most inbred of high-society overbites could be steered into a boat and made to slide his bum up and down, before being waved off to some God-forsaken outpost of empire, like Rawalpindi, or Roscrea.

Nice chaps
Even up to three decades ago, the Hooray Henry stereotype prospered. But not anymore. Instead of a bunch of terribly nice chaps called Hugo bashing oars ineffectually off the Thames, you now get teams of buff foreigners, trained and carbed, lashing the waves like piston-armed Vikings heading for Newfoundland.

It’s no laughing matter anymore. Each of the crews this Sunday has an Olympic medallist from last summer. Matthew Pinsent, chief umpire, competed in three Boat Races in the early 1990s before teaming up with that lowly Comp’ boy, Steve Redgrave.

The Boat Race might still get filed under ‘quirky’ but it’s come a long way from toe-wrestling, or welly-wangling. From its imperial quirkiness, it now has a role in identifying and developing young talent. That might make it less fun, but it kinda justifies the Beeb and BNY throwing money at what might really be otherwise described as just another undergraduate excuse to go on the rip.

In fact if you wanted the more Corinthian version of the Boat Race, all you had to do was head for the Liffey over Paddy’s weekend and watch the Finns and Siofras getting excited about the Gannon Cup.

Heard of that? Me neither, but apparently a great time was had by all, with only token references being paid to any sporting significance there might have been out on the water. Nowadays the Boat Race is much more elitist than that; just not in the way Trenton thinks.