Oxford defeated Cambridge by 32 seconds in the 160th annual men's Boat Race on the River Thames yesterday. There was a clash five minutes into the competition, bending one of the riggers that hold the oars and effectively leaving the Light Blues of Cambridge a man short, so dramatic stuff. The real loser, however, was British rowing.
According to the official boat race website, three of the Oxford eight were Harvard-educated, with a fourth hailing from Yale. Just two of the crew were British. Two competed for their countries, Canada and New Zealand, at the Beijing Olympics. A second Canadian took gold in a Commonwealth regatta, while one of Oxford's U.S. sportsmen competed against the U.K. in rowing's World Championships.
The Cambridge squad was no better, also featuring just two Brits.
So the Boat Race -- Britain's preeminent rowing spectacle and just about the only time the sport ever graces the public's eyeballs outside of the four-yearly Olympics -- has been hijacked by foreigners. Oxford and Cambridge are providing a platform and a springboard for the athletes who will be seeking to unseat the U.K.'s 2012 medal-table dominance in rowing at the next games.
To believe that is a bad thing doesn't require xenophobia, and the issue isn't new. In the world's most-watched sport, soccer, the English Premier League regularly faces calls to limit the number of overseas soccer players, because they block development of the home-grown talent needed to end the World Cup drought that has afflicted the nation since 1966. While an influx of players from Spain, Italy and elsewhere has clearly undermined English youth development, the virtuous circle of escalating payments for TV rights funding more talented teams who attract more views will likely continue to be financially irresistible. Rowing has no such excuse.
You have to worry whether at least some of yesterday's competing oarsmen owe their places at Britain's two most prestigious universities to their biceps rather than their brains. The U.K. has avoided the controversy raging through U.S. academia about the ethics and wisdom of overlooking poor grade point averages to keep athletes winning on the field: College sports aren't the big earners that they are in the U.S. Still, it would take an Oxford or Cambridge admissions officer of unusual rectitude to ignore sporting prowess when judging candidates who happen to be top flight rowers, given the fierce rivalry between the two universities in the Boat Race.
This event is quintessentially British; it's very old, a bit archaic and slightly silly. Restricting the pool of potential participants to British passport holders would give at least one British sport a much-needed boost as the country stiffens its upper lip ahead of what is almost guaranteed to be a disappointing performance at the soccer World Cup in Brazil.
Full disclosure: I wielded an oar for my college for a single Cambridge term in 1986, catching more colds and crabs (rowing-speak for missed strokes) than glory.
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