By William O’Chee
Under the rules applied by both Oxford and Cambridge, the awarding of coveted Blues to those selected for the Boat Race is not automatic. An athlete has to row (or cox) in a boat that passes the Mile Post in order to win their Blue. If the event is cancelled, or the race stopped before then, no Blues are awarded.
The cancellation of the fixtures this year means the 18 men and women selected to race in the OUBC v CUBC and OUWBC v CUWBC races will not be awarded Blues, notwithstanding they have all put in at least six months of training for the event. There is no other way to win a Blue, for nothing other than a Boat Race counts.
There are many Oxford and Cambridge crews who have rowed with distinction but have not won Blues due to this peculiarity of Oxford and Cambridge lore. For example, none of the Oxford or Cambridge crews that raced each other in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley between 1845 and 1859 earned Blues for their efforts. Similarly, Blues were not awarded to crews in the War Time Boat Races in 1940, 1943, 1944, and 1945, which were held away from the Tideway.
2020 would, therefore, have been the only non-war year in which no Blues were awarded, but for an ironic twist of fate. Since 1975 Oxford and Cambridge men’s lightweights have raced each other, with the crews earning what are called Half Blues, even though racing in their respective Lightweight Blue Boats. The same has been true of the lightweight women, who have been racing since 1984.
Earlier this year, the decision was made by Oxford’s Blues Committee that henceforth all Lightweight Blue Boats would receive Full Blues. In recent years Full Blues had been awarded on a “discretionary” basis, dependent on how crews performed at the BUCA championships, but these had nothing to do with racing against Cambridge. Cambridge lightweight crews are yet to earn the same status.
With the Lightweight Boat Races being run last weekend, it means the only rowing Blues awarded by either of the two ancient universities this year will go to Oxford’s Men’s and Women’s Lightweight crews.
Of course, lightweight rowers have earned Blues before, rowing in heavyweight crews. The late Dan Topolski of Oxford is the most famous of these in recent times, but many of those who rowed for both universities up until the 1890s would have been lightweights by modern standards.
Men’s lightweight crews must average no more than 70.5 kg, and no oarsmen must exceed 72.5 kg, or 11 st 5½ lb. While some 19th-century oarsmen like Stanley Muttlebury (13 st 9 lb) and W.A.L. “Flea” Fletcher (13 st 8½ lb) could never have been lightweights, there were many who were.
Five Boat Race crews – Cambridge in 1839, 1854 and 1862, and Oxford in 1849 and 1854 – averaged less than 70.5 kg. However only the Cambridge crew of 1862 was composed entirely of lightweights; the other crews all had at least one man who weighed more than 72.5 kg.
Although Oxford crews were heavier than their opponents in 36 of the 56 19th-century Boat Races for which we have full crew particulars, they produced some notable lightweights. Amongst them was C.W. “Bill” Kent who weighed 10 st 11 lb when he stroked the winning 1891 Oxford crew. Though he appeared in only one Boat Race, Kent would stroke four consecutive Leander crews to wins in the Grand, as well as winning the Stewards’ and the Visitor’s in 1890 with Brasenose College. Other notable Oxford lightweights during this period were J.P. Way, Claude Holland and H.G. “Tarka” Gold. On the Cambridge side, J. Hall of Magdalene College stroked four Cambridge Blue Boats from 1858 to 1861 for three wins, never weighing more than 10 st 7 lb.
In 1899, Cambridge were stroked by John Gibbon, who weighed 11 st 3½ lb. Although they would lose, Gibbon returned, somewhat heavier, in 1900 to stroke the brilliant Cambridge crew who won by 20 lengths. He would later coach four times for Cambridge and three times for Oxford.
In the 20th century, R.C. Bourne stroked four winning Oxford Blue Boats between 1909 and 1913, on each occasion weighing in at 11 st ½ lb or less. He would also win a silver medal at the 1912 Olympics.
This year’s Lightweight Boat Races showed that the lightweight format produces excellent racing, and that Oxford were right to finally rectify the historic disparity between their lightweight and heavyweight Blue Boats. FISA should arguably take note and restore lightweight rowing to the status it deserves.