The first Boat Race between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge took place in 1829. Two school chums from Harrow – Charles Merivale at Cambridge, and Charles Wordsworth at Oxford – challenged each other to a rowing race, on the river at Henley-on-Thames.
However, while it took until 1856 before match races were held regularly, what started off as a match between two friends at two leading universities has become an iconic British institution, with crews of world-class standard.
As the profile of the event grew, so has the quality of the racing – with both universities pushing the performance envelope to meet the challenge of ‘the other place’ and to be the best, with winning being the only option.
Since its very early days, the men’s race has contained and produced Olympians; over 100 previous or future Olympians have competed in the two blue boats.
In the 1990s, the advent of sponsorship made employing professional coaches a possibility. Up until this time, the Club President – a student – would organise the entire programme. Each year, the President would write to coaches, many of whom were previous Blues (‘Blues’ being awarded to those who raced in the First, or Blue, Boat) and ask them to coach for a couple of weeks. These volunteer coaches dedicated holiday and spare time to the task.
However, the arrival of both sponsorship and professional coaches saw the load lifted from the President and a more professional approach introduced. As a result, the standard of the crews rose.
The women’s Boat Race started in 1927. To begin with, the women’s race was organised as a contest of time and style, with the two crews not allowed on the water at the same time!
Until recently, the women’s Boat Races were held at Henley-on-Thames, taking place the week before the men’s race. Moreover, they also took place within a structure of guest and part-time professional coaches.
In 2013, the women’s boat clubs were given the same sponsorship funding levels as the men, meaning the clubs were able to employ full-time, professional coaches. Then, in 2015, the women’s Boat Race was moved to the Tideway, alongside the men’s race. Finally, women were in the spotlight, receiving the same recognition as their male counterparts.
Critics questioned whether women’s crews could produce competitive races and times over the Putney-to-Mortlake Championship course. Such fears have proved to be unfounded. This has been clear in both the quality of the athletes and the times the crews have been producing.
In 2015, when Caryn Davies sat in the stroke seat of the winning Oxford boat, she became the most decorated Olympian to row in the Boat Race, with two Olympic Gold medals and one Bronze to her name. The standard was set.
Today, great athletes – both men and women – are attracted to these two, world-leading, universities, where they are able to pursue both academic excellence and the desire to compete in a unique sporting experience.
By analysing the race results since 1900, a somewhat crude argument can be made that the standard of the 2017 Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat was higher than any of the men’s crews apart from the record-breaking 1998 Cambridge Blue Boat. The 1998 race also was held on an extreme tide. This by no means an absolutely foolproof way to make comparison, but it is an interesting if a bit tongue and cheek way of looking at these crews. After all, most likey the fastest crew ever does not hold the record due to conditions.
Why do I think this particular crew was of such a high standard?
Bear with me …
The world record time for a men’s eight over 2000m is 5:18.7 (2017, Germany).
The world record for a women’s eight over 2000m is 5:54.2 (2013, USA).
Comparing these times as percentages shows a women’s eight is 90% of the speed of a men’s eight. There is a 10% difference in performance between the crews at this level. As coaches, we use these comparisons to assess performances of crews and boat types, as such comparisons can provide an evaluation point.
The course record for the men’s boat race is 16:19 (1998, Cambridge). The course record for the women’s boat race is 18:33 (2017, Cambridge)
In 2017, both eights raced in fast conditions, with the men’s race producing the eighth fastest time over the course.
Compared to the world record times, Oxford’s win in the 2017 men’s race gave a percentage of 96.1% of GMT.
The Cambridge win in the women’s race time gave a percentage of 88.0%
As shown previously, a 10% performance difference between a men’s and women’s crew could be expected. The gap between the two crews in 2017 was 8.1%.
This suggests the 2017 Cambridge women’s crew was 1.9% faster than might have been expected, based on an assessment that there should be a 10% time gap between elite men’s and women’s crews.
In order to compare performances, it is worth looking at what time a theoretical men’s crew would have achieved had they produced a percentage of 98% (ie. 1.9% faster).
This would equate to a time of 16:39 – or the second-fastest time ever (overtaking that of 16:41, produced by Cambridge in 1999).Whilst these comparisons are crude and could be challenged, a case can be made that the Boat Race women’s crews are performing at a very high level. This is not an exact science for sure, and lots of argument could be made around the precision of these comparisons. However, it does make the very strong point that the women’s crews are up there with the men’s in terms of quality and speed.
This shows that by giving equal financial support to women’s sport the standards will rise, with the right coaching and support structures in place. Regardless of whether it is the men’s or women’s crews that are going faster, the sponsors of the Boat Races must be thrilled to see the clear impact of their support on women’s student sport.
2018 Boat Race
We look forward to seeing some great crews from both universities racing on the Tideway in London on 24th March 2018. http://www.theboatrace.org/