15 April 2019
By Chris Dodd
Bridge of sighs
The latest news from Putney-to-Mortlake is that its most elegant bridge, and my favourite on the Tideway, Hammersmith, is suddenly closed to traffic because it is falling down. Hammersmith and Fulham Council says it has run out of money to maintain it and blames Transport for London for neglect and a Government bent on austerity, brexiting Europe to enter an era of political and economic wilderness, and showing mean spirit to senior citizens such as Hammersmith Bridge, born 1827.
The original bridge linking Hammersmith and Barnes to a design by William Tierney Clark was the first suspension bridge over the Thames. Clark also designed Marlow Bridge, which opened in 1832 and was the model for the Chain Bridge linking Buda with Pest, the first bridge across the Danube. The idea of joining up Budapest came to Count Istvan Széchenyi when rowing at Hammersmith with Lord Jersey in the 1820s. He witnessed the bridge going up and, who knows, might have passed under a lamppost lighting his thoughts with the best of the tide. At any rate, he hired Clark to build his chain bridge, modelled more on Marlow than Hammersmith, and set up Hungary’s first rowing club for the English and Hungarian workforce to compete against Italian military types.
The present, ailing Hammersmith suspension was designed by Sir Joseph ‘Supersewer’ Bazalgette in 1887, using Clark’s original pier foundations. This is not the first time that Bazalgette’s bridge has closed for works, by any means. Apart from inherent structural weakness, it has been weighed down by thousands of fans watching the progress of Blues on a crucial bend about a third of the way to the finish, bashed by lorries and barges, and thrice bombed by the IRA. But there may be an upside to the present cash crisis. Hammersmith’s crossing will be limited to walkers, joggers, dreamers and the occasional bus.
Incidentally, Baza is in the news because pressure on his superbly constructed but no longer adequate sewers is being relieved, if that’s the word, by new bores under the Thames. One access point is by the stone that marks the start of the Boat Race where a huge sunken shaft remodels the embankment near Putney Pier. The spokesman for the Thames Tunnel, and its ambition to bring more life to the river, is Andy Triggs Hodge, triple Olympic gold medallist and Oxford Blue.
Picnickers and paras
Boat Race day 2019 bought Fleet Street’s picnickers parachuting down on Putney in pursuit of hacks’ bread and butter, the ‘great story’. Not only was there an Olympic champion in the Cambridge boat, a long-in-the-tooth one at the age of 46, but he had qualified for his number 2 seat on merit. James Cracknell, gold medallist in Britain’s four at Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, tried his best to keep a low profile among the Light Blues in the weeks before the race, but inevitably hogged the headlines on the day, helping Cambridge to a fine victory and clearing space for feature writers who are only seen at rowing events when the word ‘Olympic’ is on the card.
James’s rowing record, Boat Race feat, post-Olympic fitness, cross-continental ventures, brain-damaging biking accident, marital breakdown, single-mindedness, bloody-mindedness, humour and winning smile earned plenty of column inches, but as Richard Williams pointed out in a measured piece in the Guardian, no other oarsman in the boat, or aboard the gutsy Oxford crew, was mentioned by name.
‘Cracknell’s presence dominated the pre- and post-race coverage,’ Williams writes. ‘The double Olympic champion with a penchant for ultra-endurance events earned his right to challenge for a place in the crew through starting a master’s course in human evolution last September and, once it was granted, he became the only competitor of interest to the media. He got the double-page newspaper interviews and the TV mini-features. As the winning crew stepped out of their boat on Sunday, the BBC TV interviewer on the towpath made straight for him. In the reports published by the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and this newspaper [the Guardian], he was the only oarsman mentioned by name (although the coxes were featured, given that Cambridge’s man at the rudder had tried briefly to turn the contest into the chariot race from Ben Hur).’
Williams points out that advanced age has its place in sport, ‘as it did when Martina Navratilova won her last grand slam trophy at the age of 49, Stanley Matthews played his final game in the old First Division at 50, or Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth Formula One world title at 46. But sport is at its most exhilarating when it showcases the emergence of youth.’
The issue is age, Williams continues. ‘There were some 19- and 20-year-old undergraduates in the two crews this year, but not enough… Contests such as the Boat Race and University Challenge are designed to enable the rest of us to admire the qualities, whether of strength or of knowledge, to be found in young people. Other priorities should not be allowed to distort that essence… James Cracknell is a phenomenon. No one can blame him for taking all the oxygen in the room. But it’s time for someone to think about what it means, and what might be done to restore these much-loved contests to their factory settings.’
The trouble with the factory setting for the Blues is that there were no Olympic Games, World Championships, international graduate study programmes or full-time athletes when it was set in 1829. The presence, nay aura of Cracknell (whose own journalism began with his entertaining “Bladerunner” columns in Regatta magazine) brought old arguments about graduates, ringers, internationals and foreigners once more to the fore.
Briefly, the status rule used to say that participants must be full-time resident students, but it has never specified undergrads – nor, I believe, has any other student sport in Britain. Foreign students began to appear in the Boat Race in the 19th century, in the days before carrying a passport was necessary. When international rowing came along, the Boat Race became a nursery for aspirants to represent their country. As for ringers, men admitted to less than challenging courses of study, they are a thing of the past.
What has changed is the stream of foreign internationals reading for further degrees who finish their serious rowing at Oxbridge. But hey, rowing’s a brainy sport. For what it’s worth, 20 of the 22 Brits who rowed to Olympic gold between 1984 and 2004 have at least one university degree, and one of the remaining two is an Hon. D Litt. Also, apropos of nothing, 11 of 19 British Olympic gold medallists coached personally by Jurgen Grobler have rowed in the Boat Race. All but Cracknell did so before Olympic achievement, although one of Sir Matthew Pinsent’s three Boat Races was after winning gold in Barcelona.
The relationship between Blues and the GB squad is sometimes tense, particularly since the former GB Performance Director Sir David Tanner insisted that Olympic aspirants avoid the Boat Race during the two years leading up to the games. But the annual battle of the Blues remains an important feeder for Britain’s national team, whether undergraduate or graduate in nature.
Some years ago, the journalist Rachel Quarrell and I addressed the undergraduate question in Rowing Voice. Our findings were interesting. Both Oxford and Cambridge had more than doubled in size since the 1960s, but the increase in numbers consisted almost entirely of female students and research programmes for higher degrees. As colleges went co-ed and gender equality advanced, numbers of male undergrads from which to draw oarsmen hardly increased. This has not been so much of a loss to the men’s race as a gain for the women’s.
And on another note, there was a small printing error in the programme. The fastest men’s crew to the Mile Post, 3.31, was set by Cambridge in 1993, not 1998. (Error spotted by Barry Davies, the BBC World BR commentator). We can’t tolerate distortion of the Boat Race’s statistical record, can we?
Blessings and curses of being a Champ
Immediately after Cracknell’s boat race, his wife Beverley sprang into print in the Times to analyze their relationship and explain why they were about to reach an amicable divorce. It is too simplistic, she wrote, to attribute the end of their marriage to personality changes that occurred after the cycling accident that gave James brain damage and ended his attempt to cross America in a record time. Eight and a half years after the accident, James’s ‘unabated determination propelled my 46-year-old, soon to be ex-husband into the Cambridge eight that was triumphant against Oxford yesterday… Ours was – and remains – a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration. Returning to university to study full-time at 46 and getting into a boat alongside blokes 25 years younger may have been an absolute dereliction of parenting and marital duty, but even I can admit that it’s nothing short of super-bloody-human.’
When Beverley met James after the 2000 Olympics, she found an enigma. He was ‘shy and introverted, a handsome, privately educated middle-class boy. However, the dark internal restlessness that drives all overachievers to success was already evident… When he drove off to Cambridge on September 1, having enrolled for an MPhil in human evolution while I continued drying the pots, the appropriateness of this denouement was not lost on me. And like most teenagers, he was probably glad to see the back of the woman who seemed to be constantly making demands on him that he wasn’t prepared to meet.’
She refuted James’s public take on his latest feat as demonstrating to his children that you can do anything you set your mind to. ‘He won’t mind me admitting that I consider that to be bollocks – I wouldn’t want my children to view such an exit from familial responsibilities as something to aspire to.’
Beverley alleges that James completely underestimated the commitment that going back to university to study a master’s degree and rowing full-time would involve. ‘The family tried to tell him. We pressed for answers on teaching hours, rowing schedules and the possibility of weekends at home. But real-life commitments were too pesky – they risked getting in the way of his ambition. And beneath the insanity of taking on such a lifestyle change was certainly a desire to financially provide for his family in the longer term.’
She admits that being married to an extremely driven man can be exciting and interesting, and even on his worst days, James is funny. ‘But as any woman will admit, there comes a time when you are sick of waking up alone on holiday because these alpha males are already at the laptop or on the rowing machine. Twice we went to Barbados and James spent three hours a day on the running machine inside the hotel gym. Most women want a partner to drink buck’s fizz with on the beach while the kids are being taught to surf. James’s rowing coach, Jurgen Grobler, had a mantra, “rest is rust”, which Crackers seemingly bought into completely.’
Beverley admits to spending many evenings in the company of multiple Olympic medallists. ‘It’s obvious to me that such ambitions rarely arise from a healthy psychological place. Having to endure physical and emotional torture to prove oneself on a global stage starts life as a blessing, but its inescapability is often a curse. How can these characters ever be truly happy when nothing but external validation drives them on? When the crowds stop cheering, what is left?’
More power to Crackers’s elbow
In case anyone doubts two-seat James’s contribution to Cambridge’s 84th win from Putney to Mortlake, here’s an observation from Hugh Matheson, my co-author of Grobler’s biography, More Power. ‘When I first saw the crew at full pace, I did not know which Cambridge boat it was, so I looked at the 2 seat. The stroke side blades were well drilled and moving together in the rhythm but, when they reached the catch, No 2’s blade was in and locked instantly while the remainder of the crew hung and dithered for a fraction of a second, as college-level oarsmen will. Knowing James’s style and past training meant that you could identify the crew at distance just by the difference in speed of catch in one seat. In the race, the BBC failed to show stroke side for long enough to make that point but, for that split second, before the whole crew was able to apply power, Cracknell was carrying the load… alone. They would not know it, but the state he was in at the finish showed that he did. That was pretty damned impressive.’
Interviewed on the beach after the race, Crackers said he was going to sell his erg…
By the way, it was nice to see Oxford’s women’s Blue Boat shake hands from bow to stern while attached to the stakeboat.
Parliament slides off to Caversham
At a recent meeting of the Parliamentary Rowing Group, a revival of the Commons versus Lords regatta was announced for 5 September at GB Rowing’s Caversham HQ. You can tell how behind the times are Britain’s elected and unelected lifers and hereditary members whose bums occupy seats in the Palace of Westminster when you hear it suggested that sliding seats would be desirable for the fixture. Some also speculated on where Caversham was situated. It was thought to be en route to Wales. The discussion veered alarmingly towards morphing into a metaphor for the so-called B-word debate currently gripping Britain.
Illustrations and captions provided by Tim Koch.