Our Relationship with the Boat Race

The Boat Race 2012
The Boat Race 2012

Hélène Rémond writes:

In six months, the 161st edition of the Boat Race will take place on the Thames, from Putney to Mortlake, in London. After the 2014 race, Dr. Shannon Smith shared her thoughts about it on her blog. She is currently Assistant Professor of English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre at Queen’s University, Hailsham, East Sussex, England, where she teaches courses in English literature, sport history, and Digital Humanities.

In 2012, she completed her PhD in Victorian Literature. Her research examines the way in which men who participated in the newly-developed sphere of modern sport were represented in various popular culture forms in the nineteenth century.

On her blog, she evokes the Boat Race and the Women’s Boat Race which will be moved from the course at Henley to the famed Putney to Mortlake stretch of the Thames in spring 2015:

As someone who follows rowing, and who was once a rower, I have often been accused of being elitist and on occasion, though by no means as frequently, anti-feminist.

While it’s easy to think of most rowing clubs as a version of the famed Leander, my experience of them has been much different. Rather than the stripy pink blazers, floppy hair, and champagne and strawberries, most of the boat clubs I’ve encountered have been a little scruffy and, to extend the canine metaphor a bit further, dogged in their pursuit of things like easier access to the sport in the face of government cuts to funding sport on the local level. I’m not saying that the sport doesn’t have an access problem, or that there aren’t clubs out there like Leander, or that the stories we tend to tell about it as a culture don’t privilege white, straight, ableist, elite male involvement — they do. What I am saying is that there are more rowing stories than those.

Though I no longer row myself, I following rowing (and write about it in my academic research) because part of me wants to better understand my own rowing story. There is a dominant rowing narrative, and it’s one that, as an athlete and a feminist, I am, for the most part, uncomfortable with. It privileges the sport’s militaristic associations and celebrates the way in which it fosters qualities such as endurance, an ability to withstand extreme pain, focus, and, as I discuss in more detail in my own academic writing, hard work. And as I also detail in my academic writing, the different kinds of responses people have to that dominant narrative of the sport are conflicted and complex.

More on her blog here.

And what about you, dear readers of HTBS, what thoughts would you like to share with us about the Boat Race? Make comment to this post, or Tweet us at @boatsing, hashtag #theboatrace

Visit HTBS past posts about the Boat Race at https://heartheboatsing.com/tag/the-boat-race

One comment

  1. Although it’s a great sporting spectacle, on balance I’d rather the Boat Race weren’t the only thing that the population of this country knows about rowing. I know that Oxford/Cambridge aren’t actually elitist, but the person in the Clapham omnibus thinks they are; add that to all the ballyhoo, the terrible TV coverage, and the photographs of yahoos in blazers and in drink, and the result is something that is almost completely unlike rowing as we, the readers of your excellent blog, know it.

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