The Boys are Back in Town


After a two year Covid related break, the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is coming back to London.

It was cancelled out right in 2020, then moved to Ely in Cambridgeshire last year.

To add to the uncertainty, over the last few months, local authorities mentioned that the river might not be opened to another Boat Race for five years on Health & Safety grounds.

Hammersmith Bridge was deemed in need of repair and unsafe.

Thankfully, the threat was not carried out.

The stage would return where it has belonged for centuries: on the Thames, in London.

The ancient race was established in 1829.

It became a yearly fixture in 1856.

Incidentally, that year, it was Nicolas I, Tsar of all the Russias, who was in the news, rather than Putin.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 was in its final stages. Things, it would seem, don’t change as much as one would like to think.

Back in the United Kingdom, the men of Oxford and Cambridge would meet on the Thames in London.

The Race would start at Putney Bridge and finish at Chiswick Bridge, over four miles upriver.

Between these posts, on offer would be a journey into hellish physical pain and mental torment.

The only remedy to the lung-bursting, bone breaking, muscle ripping primeval contest would be the finish line.

Glory would be the only prize – for the winners.

The simplicity of the contest enabled it to survive and thrive.

The magic of the event, naysayers notwithstanding, was that the riverine duel required, and requires, no explanation.

It is binary: either all or nothing.

With Pride on the line, left cruelly exposed, the result dictates whether it will be shattered or vindicated.

Joy and despair, when the crews cross the line, dance cruelly together, in a deep and public embrace.

Indeed six million viewers tune in nationally every year, as do hundreds of millions around the world.

To win in front of them all, well, it is Joy beyond imagining.

It is to feel, for an instant, that nothing is beyond the reach of man.

On the other hand, to lose so publicly brings out all the devils of self-doubt and inadequacy. They never leave.

Of the two, Despair can claim to be the greater consumer of souls.

It is so because such a defeat remains with the sportsman all his life.

While the winners’ tale grows out like a well-watered plant with every year that passes, the losers’ one parches the terrain of self-confidence for a long to come.

In fact, it does so to such an extent that little in life can truly heal the deep psychological wound.

Anecdotes, conversations and moments during preparation and the race itself float back to consciousness in quieter periods, haunting forever, the minds of the losers.

This duality, deep agony and unreserved ecstasy, doesn’t escape the audience, either on the banks of the Thames or on Television.

It is visible in the faces of the boys, metamorphosing into men, as they cross the line.

Its message is understood by all who watch the race, whatever language, background or creed.

In addition, the courage of the 18 men is recognised by all, who watch the event with open hearts. Indeed, few would honestly wish to take their seats at the beginning of the race, let alone the middle or the end.

Courage is an antediluvian attribute.  It is globally respected and clarifies, when on display, the cut of someone’s jib.

From the audiences’ perspective as a result, both winners and losers are crucial.

We are thankful the sportmen turned up; they gave us their all, sacrificing, from their perspective, the ephemeral to gain immortality.

Implicitly we understand that without courage, little of note, would ever be achieved – and not just in sport. It is why we enjoy it so much when we see it on display.

When the men of Oxford and Cambridge line up on the starting block at Putney Bridge tomorrow, let us enjoy their mettle, their dedication and their commitment.

Further, the men went through a gruelling training schedule, ostracising themselves from much of what university life has to offer, are not doing this for financial gains or any other murkier motive.

In a world in which cynicism has become pervasive, the two crews, motivated by simpler things, provide us with rays of fleeting sunshine.

It also reminds us how great it is to live in a country where such traditions, as idiosyncratic as the Boat Race, can remain part of the national conversation.

It is powerful reminder that the best stories are sometimes the simplest.

It is for Glory.

Nothing more, nothing less. And four cheers to that.

Alex Story is Head of Business Development at a City broker working with Hedge Funds and other financial institutions. He stood for parliament in 2005, 2010 and 2015. In 2016, he won the right to represent Yorkshire & the Humber in the European Parliament. He didn’t take the seat.