Down By The Riverside: The Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race

On Saturday 29th March 2008, an obscure English ritual took place. It was watched by 250,00 people crowded along the banks of the Thames from Putney Bridge to Mortlake and on TV by 8 million in the UK plus an estimated 120 million in 180 other countries. The Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race covers only 6,779 metres and usually lasts no longer than 20 minutes (the record is held by Cambridge: 16 minutes 19 seconds in 1998) unless one of the boats sinks (which has happened 5 times) or even both (1912). From1829 -2007, Cambridge (light blue) had won 79, Oxford (dark blue) 73, with one ‘dead heat’. Half the crew members this year were British .There were also 5 Americans and 3 Australians.They all had to be genuine ‘Oxbridge’ students. Rowing in an ‘eight’ is not easy. You have to slide your seat at speed in co-ordination with the others while following the instructions of the ‘cox’ (who steers the boat). As an Oxford undergraduate, I attempted this just once. I got my oar stuck in the water, the boat overturned and we were all thrown into the river. I wasn’t invited back.

The two universities have clearly retained their global fascination into the 21st century – more so than even their US rivals, Yale & Harvard. Getting into Oxford or Cambridge is still considered an excellent career move . 25 British Prime Ministers (including Margaret Thatcher & Tony Blair) went to Oxford, 15 to Cambridge. 19 members of the present British Government (though not the Prime Minister) are Oxford graduates. So are 12 of the ‘Shadow (Opposition) Cabinet’, among them David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader. Also 291 MP’s (Members of Parliament). Two British Kings (Edward VII & VIII) were at Oxford. Prince Charles studied at Cambridge, as did the first Prime Ministers of India (Jawaharllal Nehru ) and Singapore ( Lee Kuan Yew).

The list is endless. Oxford claims to have educated 12 saints, 18 cardinals, 87 archbishops and 47 Nobel prize-winners. Ex-President Bill Clinton ( & more recently ,his daughter Chelsea) was there in the 1960’s. The British media (especially the BBC), the arts and legal profession are dominated by Oxford & Cambridge alumni. According to a ‘Sutton Trust’ report, more than 50% of the UK’s leading journalists were Oxbridge-educated. These are the very same people who now have to keep a close eye on politicians who were once their university drinking companions. The Report also confirms that 100 British Schools ( mainly private ones such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby) monopolise entry to the top universities.

There are almost 30.000 applications to Oxbridge every year. Oxford takes 54% from the state sector, Cambridge 57%. The both say they are aiming to increase this to 63% by 2011. Oxbridge graduates also benefit from another, archaic anonomaly. At other universities round the world, those who have obtained a BA (Bachelor of Arts) degree must study (and pay for) an additional two years and pass an examination if they want an MA (Masters). Not at Oxford, Cambridge or Trinity College, Dublin. After a gap of two years, their graduates can pay a nominal fee (currently about £25, including dinner in College) attend the awards ceremony, be hit on the head with a piece of parchment by the Vice-Chancellor and emerge with their new MA (Hons) qualification. Attempts to reform this tradition are for the moment unlikely to succeed. Oxford and Cambridge, after all, have the British Establishment on their side.

Filed under: Sports | Posted on March 1st, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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