Shock and Oar

The Boat Race, the oldest collegiate athletic competition in the world, delivered a first today in its 157 years of racing down the Thames Tideway when an swimmer popped up in the middle of the course between the Oxford and Cambridge crews and brought the race to a confusing halt.

Keep in mind this is a quintessential eccentric English sporting event, part of the holy circle that includes Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley — televised live on the BBC, bet fervently on, and followed with excruciating detail in the months leading up the way Americans might obsess about the Superbowl.

Broadcast live on BBC America, the Boat Race is finally accessible to American rowing fans — fitting given about 50% of the rowers are American ex-pats sitting in ringers’ seats.

I settled in with a cup of coffee — kicking my wife off of the couch and her usual morning diet of Real Housewives and Ru Paul Drag Racing — and watched with some sense of dreadful nervous empathy as the two crews lined up in the starting blocks and prepared for four miles of hell. The typical collegiate rowing race is 2,000 meters and is over in about six minutes; hence those races are called sprints. Oxford/Cambridge and Harvard/Yale fight it out, boat to boat, over 4 miles in 20 minutes — basically three and a half 2,000 meter sprints in one long grueling go, with the boat-to-boat pressure incredible for the rowers as they are constantly aware of whether they are leading or losing every hard stroke along the way.

For the non-rower, a rowing race is beyond dull. The sport is about consistency and impeccable timing, and after ten strokes of eight big men in a little boat you’ve about seen it all you need to see. Not today. This race suddenly erupted in a flash of spray and clashing oars as some “twat” (as the twitter hashtag “#boatrace” instantly dubbed him) popped up under Oxford’s port-side oars, just missing decapitation by a carbon fiber Concept2 hatchet blade.

The referee called a halt. Ten confused minutes later, with the streaking/swimmer in custody on a police boat, the two crews were lined up below the island and given a running start with about 7 minutes to row to the finish. For the rowers, flooded with lactic acid and already in agony, the wait in the cold wind must have be nasty, but off they went, in a hard charging re-start.

One minute later, while the referee was constantly warning Oxford to stay away from Cambridge, the two boats clashed and Oxford snapped an oar. Disaster number two and pretty much Race Over. Cambridge pulled ahead, Oxford limped along, the bladeless rower sadly going back and forth with nothing but an impotent handle in his hand. Chuffed, I switched off the telly.

The race ended up with Cambridge winning by five lengths, no official time was taken, no presentation made, and in general the whole affair ended sadly and with a whimper despite being dubbed the most dramatic in Race history.

That’s about as amazing as it gets in rowing. Soccer has its World Cut head butts. NASCAR its crashes. Rowing got a swimmer today. I can’t wait to see what Fleet Street does to the swimming idiot once he gets identified. Update: the douchenozzle is named Trenton Oldfield and here is his feeble manifesto.

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