Up The Thames Without A Paddle

JOE BATES and MICHAEL ALHADEFF consider impact of Trenton Oldfield on us, the transnational-corpo-aristocratic ruling class.

boat race Cambridge gdbo joe bates michael alhadeff Oxford rowers Rowing tradition trenton oldfield

When Oxford bowman, Dr. Alex Woods, was carried off the boat to hospital yesterday, both crews showed a dignity that was a testimony to two historic institutions. Just as the football community united in response to the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, so our crews undermined the idea that ‘elite’ institutions are devoid of character or humility.

Yesterday’s race, however, will be remembered not for the good grace of its sportsmen but for the controversies that surrounded its two interruptions. In particular, Trenton Oldfield’s unscheduled paddle and the bizarre politics behind it which captured the public’s imagination.

His blog post, published the morning before the race, reads like a right-wing spoof of the Loony Left. Sometimes his arguments seem to drift towards coherence: I can see why the boat race could be seen as “an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.”

But more often, it sinks to petty lunacy, particularly in his suggestions for solidarity protests: “If you clean the bathroom of someone that considers themselves elite or is an elite sympathiser, like a right-wing professor, can you never put loo paper in their bathroom?”

If it reads like a parody, it is because Oldfield’s actions follow topsy-turvy logic. It is true that all effective protest causes disruption, harm that is weighed against the potential benefit of protest. But Oldfield seems to think that because any good protest is disruptive, any disruption is a good protest.


Trenton! Trenton! Jesus Christ!

His focus on the superficial appearance of protesting therefore comes at the expense of any possible benefit. His decision to take a one-man stand against abstract nouns – ‘elitism’, ‘tyranny’, ‘the transnational-corpo-aristocratic ruling class (invisible)’ – was one of pure egoism.

The irony is that before Trenton Oldfield stole the limelight with his dip in the Thames, the race was shaping up to be a classic. The boats were neck and neck in a critical stage of the race. It is impossible to say what the outcome may have been.

In any sporting event, the danger of the counterfactual will always appear. The ‘what-ifs’, the ‘buts’ can descend to what the stroke had for breakfast. But in yesterday’s race, the counterfactual seemed to take over. From the moment of Oldfield’s intervention, the event had a degree of artificiality about it.

But sport is about overcoming adversity. Sportsmen and women are determined and highly trained individuals and whilst yesterday’s restart may have been called in unusual circumstances, it wasn’t unheard of. Athletes need to be able to clear their minds and focus on the task. Whilst the amount of wash made conditions difficult, the race remained a level playing field.

Indeed, the second accident of the day was purely a racing incident. The Oxford cox Zoe de Toledo took an aggressive line from the restart, resulting in a clash of blades which left Oxford’s Hanno Wienhausen without an oar. As Oxford had encroached from their station, the damage they suffered was their responsibility. Cambridge had not infringed and were allowed to win the race.

Whilst few would argue with the decision, it will remain contentious due to the heated environment. The controversy inherent in sport always has the potential to provide elation and cruelty in equal measure.

But yesterday’s race provided special circumstances. Whilst Toledo was at fault, Oldfield’s interference clearly had a psychological effect. It was after a nervous restart that Toledo steered her fateful course. Perhaps she needed a cooler head. But if you were aghast at Oldfield’s antics from your armchair, just imagine what it was like to be on the water.

Trenton Oldfield’s interruption destroyed yesterday’s race, surrounding the outcome with a haze of hypotheticals for the sake of a failed political message. A race that should have been about the trials and tribulations of sportsmen became about factors outside their control. After seven months of hell, Alex Woods finds himself in hospital with only the counterfactuals for comfort.