In Ely-sian Fields

In Greek mythology, the ‘Elysian Fields’ were the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. On 4 April 2021, the fields of Ely will witness the certainly heroic and possibly virtuous men’s and women’s Boat Race crews engaged in battles worthy of any ancient lore. Picture: BRCL via Facebook.

26 March 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is not on mute.

Perhaps one of the few good things that the pandemic has produced for those involved in the 2021 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race is that the crews have been spared the annual ritual humiliation of the public weigh-in and that the coaches have been able to say even less than they usually do at their pre-race press conferences.

The 2018 weigh-in (top) and a 2012 press conference (bottom).

In normal times, the weigh-in and crew announcement was held in some incongruous place such as London’s City Hall about three weeks before race day. Two weeks later during “Tideway Week”, each of the four coaches (flanked by their president and cox) had to take their turn facing a press conference at Thames Rowing Club, occasions that only proved that there are a limited number of ways of someone saying that training is going well and that they expect to win.

This year, on 25 March, there was no mention of weighing the rowers and the press conferences (rebranded as a “Q&A Session”) and crew announcements were amalgamated and on Zoom. As with most Zoom calls, it was a stilted affair that is unlikely to go viral.

With images courtesy of a BRCL (Boat Race Company Limited) Media Pack, the crew announcements produced the following names.

The Cambridge Women
The Oxford Women, the challengers
The Cambridge Men.
The Oxford Men, the challengers.

There is a restricted return to rowing in England on 29 March but, to clear up any confusion about training and racing past, present and future, the BRCL released a summary of the season so far.

This year, the men’s and women’s reserve races will be held at Ely later in the season but only when inter-club competition is allowed in line with British Rowing competition guidance.

The Oxford Men’s Reserves, Isis, and the Cambridge Men’s Reserves, Goldie, battle it out on the Thames on Boat Race Day 2017. Picture: BRCL via Facebook.

Opening the Zoom Crew Announcement and Q&A, Dr George Gilbert, Chair of BRCL’s Race and Operations Committee, said “If you had asked me a few years ago which would have been easier to put on, an event in central London on one of the busiest rivers in the world, insuring the safety of a quarter of a million spectators, or a small private even in a quiet corner of the country with no spectators at all, I would have given you a very, very different answer than today”.  

Cambridge practicing at Ely. Picture: @theboatrace

In response to a question about the lack of spectators possibly diminishing the event, OUBC coach Sean Bowden replied “It’s a great shame that there will not be any crowds, the Boat Race is a public event and it’s something that we share with the 250,000 people on the tow path… It will certainly change it but the intensity of the conflict between the two clubs will be just as strong as ever”. He later said that racing at Ely must give Cambridge “some advantage” but that steering the course did not require particular local knowledge and that Oxford would “just have to double up on the other stuff”. Strangely, the normally taciturn Bowden was positively gregarious compared to the three other coaches.

Oxford mask up at Wallingford, a picture taken in training in the week 15 – 21 March. Picture: BRCL via Facebook.

Andy Nelder, OUWBC Coach, answered a question about how different this year’s selection process was with the crews having so little water time: “People really improve when they have to. I put people in boats (in early March) who haven’t rowed since December – they went pretty well straight away… There wasn’t time… for boats that were not responding…” 

The women’s race umpire, Judith Packer, was asked if boats had to stay in their lanes. She replied that the major Boat Race rule is that contact between boats must be avoided. If a crew gets clear water and is moving away, they can take the risk of leaving their lane. 

The Cambridge men in the shadow of Ely Cathedral. Picture: BRCL via Facebook.

Robert Gillespie, Chairman of the BRCL, said in his closing remarks:

The Boat Race… appeals to a much bigger part of the population than rowing in general does…This year’s race may be different than usual but it may… be the most significant Boat Race that [those watching] have ever seen…

For the athletes taking part it will be different to that which all the other Old Blues will have had but it may be the most special… [Those involved] have got through something uniquely difficult and I very much hope that what they get out of it is something uniquely special.


The Oxford crew at the first Women’s Boat Race in 1927.

A digital “Media Pack” was sent out after the Zoom Crew Announcement and Q&A. Unfortunately, it repeated the commonly held and widely parroted “false fact” that, when it reported on the first Women’s Boat Race at Oxford in 1927, The Times said that “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath”, implying that the spectators opposed women racing. As I said in my piece on the event posted on HTBS last December:  

The Times did not say this or anything like it and there is no evidence to suggest any hostility by spectators. Indeed, press reports, photographs and newsreel film all indicate that the large crowd was actually very supportive of the event…. Looking at the alleged source of the quote, “The Times” of 16 March 1927 made no mention of a “hostile” crowd and managed to cover the events of 15 March in much the same way that it would have written about a men’s race, without a critical or patronising tone. 

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