Great Britain's Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities is one of the iconic rowing events dating back to 1829. It was raced between male crews only.
When the Women’s Boat Race was first introduced in 1927 between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the women’s crews were subjected to hostile remarks about their participation in the sport from male teammates who believed that women should not be allowed to row. Since then, much has changed in the world and in 2015 the women’s race will move to the Tideway, sharing the same course as the men’s crews and similar billing.
The move required “a huge team effort,” says Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) Coach Rob Baker. “By 2012 the combined support of the universities, the Boat Race Company, government, the BBC and, critically, the financial support of Newton Investment Management, helped make it happen.”
Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (OUWBC) Coach Christine Wilson adds, “For a number of years the leadership of the Boat Race Company believed the addition of women to the Boat Race was an overdue change.”
This change exemplifies a growing movement in the world of sport to increase women’s participation and to find equity among male and female athletes.
The Boat Race began when the Cambridge and Oxford University men set up a challenge that took place at Henley on Thames. Over the next two decades, the race happened sporadically and the course changed as such. In 1846 the race was on what is known as the Championship Course a 4 mile, 374 yard (6.8km) stretch along the River Thames. This has been the home of the race ever since.
The Women’s Boat Race followed a similar trajectory. In its early years (from 1929 to 1960) it was held when funding would allow, often taking place on different courses around the country. In 1960 it was moved to Henley on Thames, where it has been held ever since. Despite growing participation and popularity in women’s rowing, Cambridge and Oxford Universities struggled to find adequate funding to move the race to the Championship Course alongside the men.
“The idea had been mooted a few years before, but there was insufficient momentum and funding to make it a reality,” says Baker. With the Newton Investment Management sponsorship the women’s teams received equal funding to the men’s teams and they are now diligently preparing for the challenge ahead of them. “Changes in performance don’t come overnight so we have to be patient and make changes step by step. We aim to train more intelligently and effectively all the time and we will be training on the Tideway more frequently as we approach the 2015 race,” says Baker.
Moving to the Tideway is not only symbolically significant, the women’s teams will also benefit from the same television coverage as the men’s teams as well as increased spectators. It will throw a new spotlight on the women’s teams but in the end the real rivalry remains the same. It is the timeless battle between Light Blue and Dark Blue, Cambridge vs. Oxford.
“The Boat Race spotlights the black and white reality of competition – there is only a winner and a loser; no second place consolation prizes; just one chance to get what you want, which appeals to everyone’s individual sense of courage and what it takes to lay out a best performance on the day it matters, when everyone is watching,” says Wilson.
For these athletes and coaches, the question of the competition has little to do with gender. “For me, it’s about making a team of young aspiring athletes and helping them to reach standards they didn’t think were possible. That is the same whether they’re male or female,” says Baker.