In a foolhardy act on April 3rd of what he called civil disobedience, Tristan Oldfield swam in front of the Oxford and Cambridge crews racing on the Thames in the 158th Boat Race. Oldfield claimed to be protesting elitism. The oarsmen came to a shuddering stop when they saw Oldfield’s head bobbing in the water at roughly the middle of the four and a half mile race. Both crews would have been at full speed then, nearing the limit of their endurance as the lactic acid spread through their bodies. But they had been training all winter for this race and were summoning their reserves to push through the pain and win.
The act of stopping midway through a race borders on sacrilege and must have taken huge discipline and caused some pain as the crew ‘held water’ by digging their oars deep into the water. We call our oars ‘blades’ because of the way they hydrodynamically slice into the water for maximum torque. Oldfield was lucky he didn’t get caught under the blades because he would have been chopped to mincemeat.
The boat race has been run since 1829. Both crews have sunk on the course and in 2003, Oxford won by one foot. The crews rowed to a dead heat in 1877. Students at Oxbridge are indeed the elite—athletically but also as students; unlike pampered American scholarship athletes who enjoy alumni donations and take bird courses like sports management. The Oxbridge oarsmen pursue rigorous, professional courses of study like physics and engineering – the Oxford bowmen is Dr Alexander Woods.
I rowed at a fairly high level in the late 80s and always held the Boat Race as my benchmark. The crews train hard through the dismal English winter. Many are Olympic athletes. The Boat Race is the epitome of amateur athletics in England and represents a commitment to excellence that is unmatched in my view. Oldfield would do better tilting at the corporate elite oblivious to rule of law like the big fossil fuel companies raking in monstrous profits from the raped earth with impunity. We’ll see how he fares swimming in front of their oil tankers.