Rising Tide of Gender Opportunity

Cambridge women in practice 2015.
Cambridge women in practice 2015. Photo: Tim Koch.

Many adherents to the Light or the Dark Blue have had a hand in bringing the Women’s Oxford and Cambridge Race to the men’s course. Two of the most prominent talk to Christopher Dodd.

Two days before the annual Boat Race – the 161st for Oxford and Cambridge’s men and the first on the famous Putney-to-Mortlake tidal course for their women – the waterfront is abuzz with crews, launches, cameramen, scribes, snappers, sunshine, anticipation, wisdom, rumour and bullshit.

Come the day, and if nothing goes amiss with their tight schedule, the two men who will heave the quietest sighs of relief will be Robert Gillespie, chairman of the Boat Race Company, and David Searle, executive director of the Boat Race. The two of them have played a major role in getting the men and women to join up, and Searle – with sterling work by the paid organiser Anne-Louise Morgan – has sweated for a year to bolt the women’s event onto a day of deep habits and tradition.

Oxford Women at Henley Boat Races 2014.
Oxford Women at Henley Boat Races 2014. Photo: Tim Koch.

The women’s race has a much more chequered history than the men’s. For the last several years it has been a 2000-metre race at Henley, and for a decade people have been saying to each other ‘Wouldn’t it be good if the women’s race moved to Putney’ – or, it is fair to say, reacting against such an idea. For a long time the consensus was ‘nice idea, someday’.

Robert Gillespie, chairman of the Boat Race Company.
Robert Gillespie, chairman of the Boat Race Company. Photo: British Rowing.

This began to change when Gillespie, a Durham University graduate, was elected chairman of the Boat Race Company in 2009 (having run the Henley fixture for several years), the first non-Oxbridge graduate to take charge. He inherited an outfit with no reserves, and so the first thing he did was write a strategy paper that suggested getting the women to the Tideway. He was inspired by his visit to the rowing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He identified that the Boat Race, despite being second only to the London Marathon as the biggest free sports event in London, had a finite value – 20 minutes on one day, men only, restricted entry. He asked himself how value could be added. Put women in, and you double your value at a stroke.

The climate began to change as Blues and others looked outside the Boat Race box. It is a given that sponsorship is nowadays as essential as television coverage. This year’s Boat Race cost £2.5 million to support the four clubs involved and stage the races (£1 million of it for the week before the main event).

Most comes from BNY Mellon (men) and the bank’s associated company Newton (women). If there was no sponsor there would be no television, if there was no television there would be no sponsor. One of the benefits open to sponsors is graduate recruiting, and Gillespie points out that more and more corporations are equal-opportunity employers, who rule out support for one-gender enterprise.

Gillespie convinced himself that ‘we had to do this’. Three things had to be carried – the clubs, the universities, and the money. Oxford and Cambridge women’s clubs were talking amongst themselves before talking to each other, and then, lo, the men’s clubs were talking about it anyway. For the universities which bask in the publicity but play no role, the move was a no-brainer. They will get even more world-wide exposure. David Searle puts it like this: ‘The vice-chancellors now recognise that this is their biggest window to the world, and they have to be supportive of women.’

The money came when Newton agreed to support the women alongside BNY Mellon’s support of the men, having accepted Gillespie’s painstaking brief that it would take two years to get the women’s clubs fit for purpose for an annual four and a quarter mile race, and it may take a lot longer to produce races as exciting as the men’s recent record on the Tideway. He and Searle made a 24-hour dash to New York in 2011 to sign the deal that runs to 2017.

‘It is a credit to the sponsors that they have very little payback for two years,’ Gillespie says. ‘We explained that two years was required to prepare clubs for the move to Tideway. They needed professional coaches and new infrastructure. To be ready in 2015 we had to start in 2013.’

Gillespie explained all this in a quiet corner of the press centre in Thames Rowing Club, which is also HQ for the Light Blue women. He added that his strategy doesn’t stop here. He’s thinking about adding more value. He hides explosive ideas behind a soothing bedside manner. Why not a student competition involving other universities on the day before the Boat Race, following the theme of graduate recruitment and equal gender opportunities? Why not a student indoor rowing competition at Fulham football ground?

Like Gillespie, David Searle is the very reverse of a man who fills a room by entering through the door. Searle clothes his nerves in calmness, and admits to thinking, a year ago, that bolting the Women’s Boat Race onto the men’s would be a shoo-in – merely a matter of replicating everything that he and the race organiser arrange for the men’s race.

Oxford women's trial eight s 2014.
Oxford women’s trial eight s 2014. Photo: Tim Koch.

In reality, he had to re-examine every detail. The new race has to run an hour before the men’s race, a scheduling dictated by the BBC because the most important camera is the one that follows the race on the umpire’s launch. The launch has an hour to drop off the women’s umpire and return to Putney to pick up the men’s umpire – without raising a huge wash on the course because the men’s reserves race between Isis and Goldie starts before it reaches Putney (the women’s reserves, Osiris and Blondie, will have raced the previous day).

Launches are a headache. Seven will follow the women, a dozen the men, while the Isis-Goldie race gets only its umpire’s tin fish (not including the police and safety launches). The knock-on effect also requires the toss for stations for the women to be held early, and there is no longer time to film the crews walking to their boats two-by-two to take their seats.

Cambridge womens trial eights  2013.
Cambridge women’s trial eights 2013. Photo: Tim Koch.

The change has also caused the umpires’ panel to grow from six to eight with the addition of Sarah Winckless and Judith Backer who this year will act as reserve umpires for the men’s and women’s races respectively.

These are the nuts and bolts of the day, but Searle and Morgan have spent interminable hours in meetings with stakeholders and partners, sponsors and broadcaster, four riparian councils, the Met and the Marine Police, the Coast Guard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Transport for London and the Port of London Authority. Boat Race week itself is dawn-to-dusk busy-ness – arranging outing times for the eight crews involved, press conferences, umpire briefings, starts off stake boats, launch drivers’ rehearsal and emergency procedures.

David Searle, executive director of the Boat Race.
David Searle, executive director of the Boat Race. Photo: Tim Koch.

The Boat Race has well-researched risk assessment and contingency plans, especially since the intervention of the demented swimmer a couple of years ago. Searle’s worst nightmare – and the BBC’s – is if the women’s race suffers a delay. He has brought his own touch to the new women’s race by presenting them with a 2015 gold sovereign for the toss (the men use an 1829 sovereign presented by the renowned radio commentator John Snagge). He deserves a fine day of perfect timing and feisty racing for the effort he has put in.

He sums it up himself: ‘We have to remember that everything flows from the Boat Race. It is the oldest team event in existence.’

End of 2014 Boat Race.
End of 2014 Boat Race. Photo: Tim Koch.

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