3 April 2021
By Hugh Matheson
Hugh Matheson rowed for Oxford in the 1969 Boat Race. He competed in three Olympic Games in 1972, 1976 and 1980; taking a silver medal in the eights at the 1976 Games. Matheson also won a silver in the eights at the 1974 World Championships. Together with Chris Dodd, Matheson wrote More Power – The Story of Jurgen Grobler, The Most Successful Olympic Coach of All Time, published in 2018. Here Hugh Matheson takes a closer look at the 2021 Boat Race Principal Partner, Gemini.
A couple of weeks before the: “When I see you are straight, I shall say: Are You Ready? Go!” the very far from traditional 2021 Boat Race sprouted an unexpected pre-fix and became ‘The Gemini Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race’. For most of us, Gemini is a constellation named in the second century AD by the astronomer, Ptolemy, after the Italian ‘gemelli’ for twins, because it was identified by two prominent stars, also twins in legend, Castor and Pollux.
In 2011, after their return to New York from a year at the Said Business School in Oxford, ‘Gemini’ was adopted as the trading name of another pair of twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.
Gemini Trust Co. has floated a raft (puns are two a penny in this story) of subsidiaries all with Gemini in the title and each provides one or other service to the rapidly moving Bitcoin story. The twins are now worth an incalculable amount after a financial history which is finely threaded through a rowing story. The 6ft 5inch ‘testosterone titans’, as described by a local newspaper, went to Brunswick, a non-rowing prep school in Greenwich, Connecticut. While there, they taught themselves HTML and started designing websites for businesses and simultaneously started a rowing club. Fortunately, they are ‘mirror image’ twins, one left-handed the other right-handed or, for aquatic purposes, one stroke side the other bow side or again, in some places, one port and one starboard.
They went on to Harvard, rowed for Harry Parker and found themselves consulting the University Year Book to remember which girls they had already dated and which they had not yet met. How the women worked out which was which – left-handed, right-handed? – no one knows. Linking their HTML skills to their social lives, they started writing a programme which would enable each student at Harvard to connect with any other student through a primitive website. As it began to work, they added other schools and at its peak ConnectU had about 70,000 subscribers.
Famously, and as described at length for the film The Social Network (2010), along the way they sought the help of fellow student, Mark Zuckerberg, to do some of the coding that their busy social and sporting lives made burdensome. According to the Winklevi, as Zuckerberg conjoined them, he nicked their idea and grew it into Facebook. According to Zuckerberg, it was his idea and his coding that made the difference.
The Winklevoss twins took to the courts and eventually won a settlement of $20m in cash and some (a lot) of Facebook stock. The cash was burning a hole in their pockets as they trained under Sean Bowden with the OUBC. They were favourites for the 2010 Boat Race but, after leading to the top of Chiswick Eyot, Oxford, as sometimes happens in a two-boat race, let the punters down and Cambridge came through. The Dark Blues, with the Winklevoss brothers at 3 and 4, lost by a length and a bit.
On return to New York, they kept fighting Zuckerberg and sundry others, including their lawyers who had disclosed the value of the settlement, er… $65million. In the meantime, they got interested in the emerging blockchain technology which was being engineered into a system of monetary exchange intended to bypass the existing banking system. During 2013 one Bitcoin unit ranged in value from $13.40 to $1,156. Somewhere between those points, the twins punted $11m of their own money into buying coins.
A previous sponsor of the Boat Race, Martin Gilbert, of Aberdeen Asset Management, pointed out when he hired Old Blues from either side to work for his fund management firm, “Even successful rowers are used to being beaten day in day out in something and learn how to think through the defeat and how to win next time”. The twins, and their vehicle Gemini, will have had very little to show for their faith in Bitcoin in the three years to 2017. However, they used the time between court cases to establish Gemini as an exchange for Blockchain currencies and gradually added the conventional accessory services, like custody and insurance. Then, after three years of higher but hyper volatile prices, in mid-2020 Bitcoin set off to join Ptolemy’s Gemini in space. It peaked recently at $50,000 for each and every one of them.
It is probable that the original $11m trade was reduced along the way, but its risk has long since been covered by the earning power of the Gemini services. The one cloud on this otherwise fairy tale and squeaky-clean horizon has been the noisy public criticism of the computers which Bitcoin uses for mining, also known as hashing. They consume as much power and produce the same carbon emissions as a country like Argentina. What, you might ask, is the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race – an extreme breathing event if ever there was one – doing being sponsored by a mega polluter like Gemini which, for a time, owned 1% of the total issuance of Bitcoin?
The most reliable source for these claims, which are repeated with injudicious abandon by commentators around the world, is the Cambridge University Judge School of Business, which publishes annually the Global Cryptoasset Benchmarking Study. Are the pesky Light Blues once again the Winklevoss nemesis?
The case against is that many of the computers doing the hashing are made and located in China which has lots of cheap, but dirty, coal fired power. The most recent Cambridge study says, “Despite increasing transparency and research on the environmental impact of PoW (proof of work) mining, the topic is still typically misrepresented in most sources and on both sides of the debate”. Cambridge says that in 2019 39% of hashing’s total energy consumption came from renewables. Much of this portion is done by computers in Iceland and Norway, which use geothermal and other clean sources. The global gross is apparently 120 terawatt hours per year, whatever that amounts to, which is unavoidably a lorra lorra bad stuff from the 61% which is not from renewables.
Of course, the total fluctuates with crypto prices and both will go down sometime. It is also worth pointing out that to the extent crypto currencies become regulated and understood they might replace a banking system that also uses computers which pollute in precisely the same way. It is a good campaigning point to push computing supply into places where the fuel is clean, whatever the end use might be. Through the work of the Gemini Exchange and its other services a lot of computer power is consumed and two thirds of it is dirty. The Boat Race crews, which are now benefiting from the Gemini sponsorship, are on the point of a potential conflict and the charge that Gemini is ‘greenwashing’ or as these sponsorships are sometimes called ‘sportswashing’ can be made.
Should the men and women racing with Gemini printed on their shirts on Easter Sunday worry about it? Probably yes – but not enough to risk losing their races… or their sponsor.