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So the newsfest that is the 2012 Boat Race continues, and now it appears that we know who the rogue swimmer is: a 35-year-old man named Trenton Oldfield (with a name like that he should have been a rocker, not a protester) wishing to complain about elitism. In an extended rant he set out his grievances and explained why he’d picked the Boat Race for his protest:

“The boat race itself, with its pseudo competition, assembled around similar principles of fastest, strongest, selected …etc, is an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.”

Now, there’s no denying that at school level, rowing is – with a few very notable exceptions – a sport practised mostly at fee-paying schools. But at club level, rowing simply cannot be accused of elitism. Rowing clubs are spectacularly good value for money – far cheaper than most gyms and health clubs, and offering so much more for your money. Membership is by no means confined to those with plums in their mouths; if it were, the clubs simply wouldn’t be able to keep going.

Rowing is the best leveller I know. You might have a good education, a first class degree and a cut glass accent, but let me assure you that none of these make the boat go faster. None of these will make you win. I should know: I’ve got all of the above and have yet to win a race. Thankfully there are plenty of people in my club who have none of these advantages but are blessed with what really matters in rowing: strength, technique and courage. That’s what wins races.

But elitism aside, what really amused me about Trenton Oldfield’s blog was his description of the Boat Race as a “pseudo competition”. I wonder if, when he saw the boats powering towards him at a terrifying speed and saw at close quarters what went into the race, he still thought that. Whatever you can say about rowing, there’s nothing pseudo about it.

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Much is still unclear about the 2012 Boat Race. First and foremost, we don’t yet know how Alex Woods is; the latest we’ve heard is that he’s been taken away in an ambulance, and everyone’s thoughts are of course with him. We don’t yet know who the rogue swimmer was, nor what he was doing in the water (a protest, one assumes, or perhaps just a head case). And then the disaster of the blade clash and Oxford’s brave decision to keep rowing despite the certain loss that was facing them (one commentator suggested that they should just stop in order to save face).

What we can say with certainty is that the Boat Race 2012 will go down in history, and not for all the right reasons. Much will be said about the swimmer and about the umpire’s call over the blade clash, and I’ll not go into that as the pundits will have more than enough to say on the subject later on.

There were two things that stuck in my mind, though. The first was Cambridge’s initial elation after what could only be described as a hollow victory. Of course they could be forgiven for being delighted with a win, whatever the circumstances; they’d worked phenomenally hard for a year and dealt with a difficult and stressful race with courage and strength. And yet I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable as they whooped and splashed and stood up in the boat and generally carried on as if it had been a normal win in normal circumstances. Perhaps, with my history of losing races, I identify too strongly with the unfortunate losers (and I’ll confess I’m an Oxford girl myself, so am bound to be a bit partial), but given the interruption and restart when Oxford were ahead and looking like they might well win, coupled with the fact that (whatever the merits of the umpire’s decision), Oxford had been a man down, it still felt a bit wrong. Not quite cricket. Certainly not quite Henley.

But the second thing that struck me was the speed with which they adjusted their behaviour when Oxford’s bow man, Alex Woods, was lifted out of the boat, clearly in trouble. Their smiles soon became muted and their celebrations dignified. Woods’ crisis reminded everyone what was really important. It’s a shame that we need a man being taken away in an ambulance to remind us what matters most, but at least it did. Sport, after all, should be sporting and the Boat Race should epitomise that. Oh, and to prove that I can practise what I preach… Congratulations, Cambridge; commiserations, Oxford; and get well soon, Alex.

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