The Boat Race and Unintended Consequences

It is one of the constant fascinations of life that our actions almost always have unintended consequences and that sometimes, even when everything seems to have gone perfectly to plan, it can all backfire spectacularly.

Take, for example, the 2012 Boat Race…

Merton 2nd VIII, Torpids 1992. I'm rowing Stroke in the boat on the left.

This year’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was interrupted by the unexpected appearance of a swimmer in the path of the boats. Both crews stopped rowing and managed, narrowly, to avoid injuring the man. It took about half an hour to get everyone into position to restart the race from the point that it was stopped (the boats were drifting upstream on the tide) and it was quickly ended when an oar snapped in the Oxford boat.

There was a great deal of disappointment on the banks of the river, and no doubt in the TV audience too, that we’d been deprived of what had promised to be one of the great races. The boats had been close, and might have still been close crossing the line if it hadn’t been for the broken blade. It’s easy to blame the crash on the restart, but given that the boats restarted almost exactly as they were when the race was stopped, I suspect we’d have seen the same result even without the swimmer’s interruption.

The swimmer, Trenton Oldfield, claiming to be a ‘Anti-Elitism’ protestor, had been lucky that there was a race to disrupt: they’d been rowing for ten minutes and usually one boat has an unassailable lead by then. His plan had been to spoil the day out for the “elitists” that line the banks by disrupting their stupid “pseudo-competition”. He left the scene in Police custody with a huge grin, obviously thinking he’d done well.

He did, probably better than he’d hoped, disrupt the boat race. What fascinates and amuses me are the unintended consequences of his actions. For those of us lining the banks of the river on Saturday, the boat race itself isn’t much of a spectacle. Even from the best vantage points, only two or three minutes worth of rowing can be seen. Only the television coverage can let you see the whole four and a half miles of it. So the trip is more about meeting people, having a few drinks and an excuse to loiter by the river. We still got to see our little bit of rowing, and Trenton Oldfield didn’t spoil the party, he extended it by more than half an hour. Anyone for another pint?

The opposite of Love is not Hate, it’s Indifference.

The Boat Race, despite it’s 158 year history, would peter out and die if it became an irrelevance. The irrelevance that Oldfield accuses it of being. Nothing could have injected more life into the institution than to disrupt it in a way that made it the headline on every news channel and the front page of every paper. His incoherent protest couldn’t have backfired more.

The last time we went to watch the boat race was twenty years ago when I was still a rower myself. I remember it because it was also the only time that I picked the winner of the Grand National, which happened to be on the same day that year. We will have no trouble remembering this year’s race. Thanks Trenton for a most memorable day out!

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One comment

  1. I’m an ex-rower too. We must be the same age as I was at UCL from 90-93.
    Very pleased Trenton Oldfield was sent to prison. Sends a powerful message to other narrow-minded, sanctimonious kill joys.

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