9 April 2017
Tim Koch has a preamble:
This post was going to be a simple picture diary with little text, concluding my Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race reports. However, a letter in the online Guardian newspaper has produced a rather long response from me. It may not be of interest to everyone and I do not like long pieces of text unbroken by pictures so I have decided to combine the picture diary with my Guardian response, though the two are only notionally connected. Feel free just to look at the pictures if you wish.
The Guardian, the liberal British national newspaper, stereotypically beloved of the middle class, earnest and politically correct, is in trouble. Like all traditional newspapers, it is trying to deal with steep declines in print advertising revenues and increased competition from online news sources. One of the many cost-cutting measures it has considered is to relocate from London to Manchester. This is ironic as the Manchester Guardian controversially moved from its original home to the capital in 1964. I would suggest that a simple way to instantly revive its fortunes would be to revive the post of rowing correspondent and re-employ Chris Dodd (though I would probably have difficulty in convincing the newspaper’s resident editors, accountants and football fanatics of the validity of this claim). Until this happens, Barry Glendenning has done a tolerable job with one of the Guardian‘s rare rowing reports – that on this year’s Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Unusually, the piece has prompted a couple of letters in response, possibly something that has not happened to a Guardian rowing story since the Boat Race Mutiny of 1987 (or, may be that of 1959).
On 3 April, Robert Anderson wrote:
Barry Glendenning writes: ‘The Boat Race … is often derided as a symbol of class elitism [but] this sporting spectacle retains a curious appeal among millions with no particular interest in rowing or either university involved…’ Perhaps, in a world where most top-level sport is highly commercialised (and dominated by another sort of elite), the fact that the boat race is one of the few first-class sporting events that is still truly amateur has something to do with its appeal. Perhaps we need more of this sort of thing, not less.
This is the sort of thing that HTBS and, I am confident in saying, most of its readers would agree with. However, on 5 April, Neil Wigglesworth responded to Robert Anderson:
Robert Anderson seems to be under the impression that the Boat Race is ‘truly amateur’… Not only are the overwhelming majority of the participants from expensive, elite educational establishments, but the whole event is also funded by commercial sponsorship and broadcasting fees of about £1m. The most expensive equipment and the best coaches that money can buy certainly provide a spectacle for the masses while the rowers cement their prosperous futures by further gilding their CVs. Little of this is done ‘for the love of it’.
Normally, I would just dismiss without comment these views as typical of the ill-informed prejudice that the Boat Race seems to generate – but this particular writer cannot be rejected too lightly. Dr Neil Wigglesworth is the author of The Social History of English Rowing (1992), an important work that gives rare emphasis to the fact that much rowing existed outside the dominant Public School / Oxbridge / Tideway / Henley tradition – which is not something that I always remember to do. The flyleaf of my 25-year-old edition says:
Neil Wigglesworth has spent 25 of his 42 years rowing, almost to the exclusion of everything else. His interest in the sport allied to a fascination with social history encouraged him to compete a PhD in the social history of rowing at Manchester University – he is therefore the first and only Doctor of Rowing. This book is an adaptation of his doctoral thesis.
In the forward to The Social History, JA Mangan, then editor of The International Journal of the History of Sport, wrote:
Neil Wigglesworth makes the point that it is not possible to insulate sport from the wider society. Rowing, he argues, is the finest barometer of social change provided by the sporting tradition…
With this background, it is a shame that Dr Wigglesworth displays such muddled thinking in his Guardian letter, a response that may have been generated more by his presumed liberal-left views than by his considerable knowledge of rowing. For the record, ‘liberal-left’ is not a pejorative term as far as I am concerned.
In his assertion that the Boat Race is not ‘amateur’, Wigglesworth goes to the root definition of the word, from the French ‘lover of’, ultimately from the Latin ‘amatorem’.
His first complaint is that ‘the overwhelming majority of the participants from expensive, elite educational establishments’. It is true that the crews contain a disproportionate number of people from private or selective schools. However, this does not make them any less ‘amateur’, even if many were educated at establishments that could afford to run a boat club. Further, crews are selected from genuine students of the two universities and if these include large numbers from ‘expensive, elite educational establishments’ that is something for the Oxford and Cambridge authorities to deal with – not their university boat clubs. As far as I know, Oxford coach, Sean Bowden, does not pick crews on the basis of who says ‘lavatory’ and who says ‘toilet’ and I think that Steve Trapmore of Cambridge gives equal consideration to those who have – and to those who have not – skied at Val d’Isere.
Dr Wigglesworth continues that ’the whole event is also funded by commercial sponsorship and broadcasting fees of about £1m’. The implication seems to be that all of this is ‘a bad thing’. Firstly, sponsorship is the one of the best things that have happened to the Boat Race. It enables the crews to be superbly prepared for a race over the full 4 1/4 miles, not, as often happened in the past, a sprint to Hammersmith Bridge and then a limp procession for the remaining 60 per cent of the course. Secondly, without commercial money, the women would not have facilities equal to the men and would not be racing on the Tideway. Thirdly, Wigglesworth’s point is that this money means that the event is not ‘amateur’. While a handful of coaches, boatmen and administrators make a tolerable living out of the Boat Race, clearly there is no pecuniary advantage gained by the rowers. Is this not the definition of ‘amateur’?
To be fair to Wigglesworth, the sentence beginning, ‘The most expensive equipment and the best coaches that money can buy certainly provide a spectacle for the masses…’ does imply that he agrees with my assertion that sponsorship provides a better race. However, while the standard of coaching and equipment at the boat clubs of Oxford and Cambridge is certainly high, it is no more so than that for the best crews at the top domestic clubs. Also, without paid coaches there would have to be a return to putting in charge an Old Blue who was wealthy enough or idle to devote a large amount of unpaid time to the job. Is the egalitarian Dr Wigglesworth advocating a rejection of the journeyman professional and a return to the gentleman amateur? Finally, I think that his use of the term ‘spectacle for the masses’, implies a certain snobbishness, not unknown on the bourgeois left, rather like using the terms hoi polloi or bread and circuses.
The concluding part of Wigglesworth’s letter is particularly insulting: ‘the rowers cement their prosperous futures by further gilding their CVs. Little of this is done “for the love of it”.’ He seems to have a problem with the fact that these highly intelligent young people have a prosperous future, but worse is his idea that some or many simply row to ‘gild their CVs’ (US: resumes), not for the love of the sport or for pride in being part of The Boat Race. Thus, instead of impressing future employers by speaking in the Union or editing Isis or joining Footlights (or whatever the 2017 versions are), these cynical youths train for eight cold months, two or three times a day, six days a week, in the gym, on the ergo and on the water, taking six hundred strokes in practice for each one pulled in the race – while still doing their studies – in order to add a line to their CV. Dr Wigglesworth, nobody is that cynical – except, possibly, you.