It will come as no great surprise to anyone who has read my column before that I am not someone whom one would describe as a ‘sports enthusiast’.
I have never sat through a whole football game (is it 90 minutes?), I couldn’t name the Six Nations if you paid me, and to me, July and August 2012 will just mean busier Tube trains. But I’ve never missed an Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race.
Aside from the fact that rowing is, compared to most sports, incredibly easy to understand, and that its participants are very often remarkably easy on the eye, what really impresses me is the sheer determination and athletic prowess that it so loudly applauds.
While many undoubtedly watch it for want of something better to do on a Saturday afternoon, I am genuinely interested in it and, more to the point, impressed by it. Team this with the fact that I am Oxford born and bred and have many connections with the city’s great academic institution (the most notable being, of course, that they rejected me, but we’ll speak no more of that), and you have a fool-proof recipe for a couple of hours of sheer delight.
The Boat Race was made for people like me.
Imagine my horror, then, at around 14:25 on Saturday 7th April. Unable to get up to London to cheer on the boys in dark blue from the river bank, I was left poised on the edge of my sofa, Earl Grey in one hand, Tweet-abundant iPhone in the other, cheering them on from afar.
Until, that is, the race was abruptly halted thanks to the thoughtless actions of one individual, who had seen the race, which, eight minutes underway, had just reached Chiswick Steps, as the perfect opportunity to protest against elitism. I am referring, of course, to Mr Trenton Oldfield, 35.
It was Matthew Pinsent, 4-time gold medal winner, who raised the alarm after seeing Oldfield’s head (sadly still attached to his wetsuit-clad body) bobbing dangerously close to the Oxford and Cambrige oars. The race was halted and Oldfield, grinning demoniacally, was removed from the water. I need not recount the catastrophe that followed. Needless to say, Cambridge’s victory was certainly a hollow one.
In a blog entitled ‘Elitism Leads to Tyranny’, published just hours before the ‘big splash’, Oldfield stated that his act was intended to be ‘a protest, an act of civil disobedience, a methodology of refusing and resistance.’
He went on to describe Chiswick Steps, the backdrop to his anti-elitist attack, as ‘a site where elitists and those with elitist sympathies have come together every year but one for the last 158 years to perform, in the most public way, their ambition for the structures and subsequent benefits from elitism and privilege to continue’, labelling the Race itself as ‘an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.’ Essentially, the man had a political message to make, and he was going to do his damned best to make it.
What must first be said about Oldfield’s intentions is that they are wildly hypocritical. Within an hour of his removal from the river, it was revealed the Australian-born council co-ordinator for river strategy attended one of Sydney’s most exclusive private schools, where he was a celebrated oarsman, before going on to study contemporary urbanism at the London School of Economics. While he has since raged against the school, accusing it of ‘mass-producing yuppies’, there can surely be no doubt that he owes a great deal of his subsequent success to the excellent start in life that it afforded him. The man is nothing more than a champagne socialist at best, and a raving anti-establishmentarian at worst.
Unlike our dear friend Mr Oldfield, I did not have the benefit of an exclusive or expensive education. While I now study at one of the most celebrated Universities in the world, my early student years were spent at one of the country’s poorest and most academically challenged state schools. My parents could have afforded to send me to one of the neighbouring private schools, some of which are among the best in Britain, but being only one generation away from the clutches of the working classes (I am, in fact, half Liverpudlian), I would not have ‘fitted in’. Nevertheless, I recognise the benefits and, moreover, the necessity, of elitism to a successful functioning society.
The concept of ‘elitism’ – simply that the best rise to the top, and are wholeheartedly applauded for it – is by no means an evil concept.
History shows us that the best societies are founded upon the celebration of hard work and the rewarding of achievement. There is nothing to say that poor little proles like me can’t stand up and be counted; Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer, after all. When one strips everything away, elitism has nothing to do with class at all, but a great deal to do with success.
British society quite rightly operates in this way, and there is no sport which represents the ethos of hard work and reward more perfectly than rowing. Long may it continue to do so.
However, this anti-elitist’s intentions, or indeed my pro-elitist reactions to them, are not actually the crux of the issue. What is more important to me, and indeed many others in Britain, are the incredibly serious ramifications of Oldfield’s desperately selfish actions. When describing his protest on his blog he was certainly right to place the word ‘peaceful’ in quotation marks. While no one was harmed directly (although many, including myself, wish that Trenton himself had been), a fairly strong case could be built to suggest that Alex Woods, a surgeon-in-training and Oxford’s bowman, would not have collapsed at the end of the race had it not been halted and restarted.
I am no expert on rowing, or indeed medicine, but I am fairly confident in my assertion that the sudden stop and restart of the race is what led to the build-up of lactic acid in Woods’s muscles, the potential cause of his seizure.
No official details of his condition, besides the fact that he is now ‘stable’, have been released by Charing Cross hospital, but if and when they are, I for one will not be surprised if the finger is pointed at Trenton Oldfield. And if and when it is, I hope that he is punished accordingly.
While Woods’s condition is indeed lamentable, the true tragedy of Oldfield’s actions was their prevention of a fair competition, and the destruction of months of unimaginably hard work – two qualities which are rightly celebrated by the abhorred ‘elitist’ system.
In a statement directed at Oldfield, released on Twitter shortly after the event, the Oxford University Boat Club said: ‘When I missed your head with my blade I knew only that you were a swimmer, and if you say you are a protester then, no matter what you say your cause may be, your action speaks too loudly for me to hear you. I know, with immediate emotion, exactly what you were protesting. You were protesting the right of seventeen young men and one woman to compete fairly and honourably, to demonstrate their hard work and desire in a proud tradition. You were protesting their right to devote years of their lives, their friendships, and their souls to the fair pursuit of the joys and the hardships of sport. You, who would make a mockery of their dedication and their courage, are a mockery of a man.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself. The 158th Boat Race was undoubtedly thus far the pinnacle of each member of the two crews’ boating career, and it was unjustly snatched from them by a man who really should have known better.