Some Thoughts on the Boat Race

As someone who follows rowing, and who was once a rower, I have often been accused of being elitist and on occasion, though by no means as frequently, anti-feminist.

While it’s easy to think of most rowing clubs as a version of the famed Leander, my experience of them has been much different. Rather than the stripy pink blazers, floppy hair, and champagne and strawberries, most of the boat clubs I’ve encountered have been a little scruffy and, to extend the canine metaphor a bit further, dogged in their pursuit of things like easier access to the sport in the face of government cuts to funding sport on the local level. I’m not saying that the sport doesn’t have an access problem, or that there aren’t clubs out there like Leander, or that the stories we tend to tell about it as a culture don’t privilege white, straight, ableist, elite male involvement — they do. What I am saying is that there are more rowing stories than those.

Though I no longer row myself, I following rowing (and write about it in my academic research) because part of me wants to better understand my own rowing story. There is a dominant rowing narrative, and it’s one that, as an athlete and a feminist, I am, for the most part, uncomfortable with. It privileges the sport’s militaristic associations and celebrates the way in which it fosters qualities such as endurance, an ability to withstand extreme pain, focus, and, as I discuss in more detail in my own academic writing, hard work. And as I also detail in my academic writing, the different kinds of responses people have to that dominant narrative of the sport are conflicted and complex.

If you want to get a flavour of what is undoubtedly the dominant mode of talking about rowing, unearth a copy of Dan Topolski’s accounts of coaching the Oxford Boat Race crew in the 1980s. Though I don’t have a copy to hand, one of Topolski’s statements has always remained lurking in the back of my mind as a perfect example of this kind of (contemporary) rowing discourse. In discussing a rower’s seemingly relentless campaign to get back into shape for the 1987 race, Topolski opines: “Those workouts would have put a commando in a rest home.”


The Dark Blue boat at Hammersmith Bridge

The Dark Blue boat at Hammersmith Bridge during the 2014 Boat Race ©Shannon R Smith


I can’t deny that to have women elbowing their way into that world is a challenge to the dominance of that masculinist model of participation. When I was completing my PhD, one of my supervisors, and also my then-head of department were both women who had rowed for Oxford. It still amuses me greatly that the two of them raced against each other in one of the university’s famed bumping races (My head of department’s boat won Head of the River that year and they were thrown a proper Bump Supper). If you talk to them about rowing, they understand their participation as part of a larger movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s to bring women into the sport. And in their different ways, they’re proud of it. Indeed, my head of department participated in one of the Women’s Boat Race revivals in the early 80s. Recently she told me that she and her crewmates were forced to change into their rowing gear on the porch at Leander because, at the time, the club didn’t admit women. When I read recently that as of 2015, the Women’s Boat Race will be moved from the course at Henley and finally rowed on the famed Putney to Mortlake stretch of the Thames — what one nineteenth-century journalist called “the Epsom Downs of the rowing world” — I couldn’t help but think of my former head of department and tear up, just a little bit, in spite of all the alarm bells going off in my head about the corporate sponsorship that made the move to the London venue possible.

However, there is a lot about rowing that, for either an active or a spectating feminist participant, requires negotiation and there’s a lot about rowing that I’m still, even after many years attached to the sport, not sure about. For example, I’m never sure how much of a feminist act it is to live up to the male model of the sport’s participation. I’m conflicted. At the same time that I find it empowering to be able to look a male rower in the eye and state that I completed the same workout as him, and that, on occasion, I too pushed my body to the point of vomiting, or that I know how to rig and de-rig a boat, or that I’m aware of the value of a 7/16 wrench (spanner, for my UK readers), I also find myself wishing for better articulated, alternative models of participation. Are the only terms of my involvement in the sport masculinist ones? I don’t think so.

And in connection with that, what about the many men I know who row, and who derive incredible joy from the sport? They too are negotiating their own relationships with the sport’s dominant mode of participation, a negotiation that is by no means easy. To simply write off male rowers as men involved in the sport because it speaks to their elite, white, straight, ableist privilege doesn’t get at the complexity of the participation I’ve observed on an individual level for both men and women, especially in regards to age, race, class, physical ability, and sexual orientation.

So every spring, I’ll head down to the Thames and watch the Boat Race, not because I’m looking to pop a cork on some Bollinger and celebrate hegemony — which is what 2012 Boat Race protester Trenton Oldfield more or less seemed to think we were all doing — but because I’m still trying to figure out my relationship to the Boat Race, the sport, and the different stories we, as a culture, tell about both.