The only criticism being levelled at organisers of the University Boat Race, after it was announced earlier today, Wednesday, that the women’s race would have parity with the men’s event from 2015, was that it will not come sooner. As part of a new five-year sponsorship deal with asset management company BNY Mellon, women will have the same funding, support and coverage as their male counterparts in three years’ time, racing on the same day, over the same course, in front of the same 250,000-strong crowds and watched by the same TV audience of 7 million.
But while officials batted away detailed questions over the logistics of racing in 2015, it was clear how much work still needs to be done to raise the infrastructure and levels of performance of the women’s squads from their current standard – among the top crews in the country – to those in the men’s race – among the top crews in the world. Sir Matthew Pinsent took part in three Boat Races for Oxford – winning in 1990 and 1991 and losing in 1993, either side of winning his first Olympic title. He also coached the women’s reserve crew for two years while a student and is now on the event umpires’ committee.
“To this day one of the big attributes of someone in the squad is that they have their own car,” he said of the women’s race. Pinsent continued, “The reason Oxford’s women train at Radley [while the men are half an hour away in Wallingford] is that they cycle there. The men’s boat club has vans to take them to training. The boats they had, the coaching they had, the logistical support; a huge amount fell on the boat club officers. Every year they would have to create it again. Finally we’ve found a solution to that.”
Race organisers expect an increase in applications from international rowers and graduates from the US – where undergrad rowing is strong but post-grads are ineligible to compete for their universities – to study at the two institutions and compete in the women’s event, although no sports scholarships are available.
Pinsent cited two examples of successful female rowers making different choices than men would in the same situation, because of the stature of the women’s race at the time. Anna Watkins (on the right), who, along with Katherine Grainger, has won back-to-back world titles in the double scull and is heavily favoured for Olympic gold this summer, rowed at Newnham College a decade ago, but never went for Cambridge squad selection. Watkins decided she wanted to go to the Olympics but realised the most obvious route into the GB squad was through sculling, which is not on offer at university level.
“We’ve got to make sure there is more of a pathway from the women’s boat club to international rowing. At the moment it happens accidentally. Hopefully in 2020 there will be three or four women in the Olympic team who have come through the Boat Race,” said Pinsent.
Watkins said on Twitter that she was “thrilled” by the news, adding, “Looking forward to seeing a viable pathway from CUWBC and OUWBC to British Rowing re-established.”
Pinsent’s God-daughter is Natalie Redgrave, daughter of his former rowing partner Sir Steve, who was part of Oxford’s winning crew last year, in her second year at the university. However, she is not going for a second victory this year. Pinsent added: “I doubt even as a medic that she’s still going to be studying in 2015. There’s a case in point of someone who obviously loves the sport and loves racing but once you’ve done it once, you think: I’ve done that now. In the men’s boat club you would seldom have a guy who won a Blue in his first year of uni decide not to do it anymore. Of course you’re going to do it again, aim to win two or three. But it’s much harder work [currently] on the women’s side to give a two or three-year commitment.”
The commitment has been made, the fanfare is over. Now the work begins on turning the Women’s Boat Race into the same captivating spectacle that the men’s event often is.
Photo of Anna Watkins by Dr. Robert Treharne Jones, Leander Club.