I wasn’t going to write anything this weekend. It feels a tad phony writing about London when you’re tucked away in a Welsh village, surrounded by more tractors than buses. However, as I watched over the Thames from a TV 240 miles away, my heart went out to eighteen athletes, and I felt I needed to write about it.
I didn’t give two hoots about the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race before 2005. I’d never stood on the Thames to view it, I’d never even switched on a TV to watch it – in fact the whole ‘light blue, dark blue’ thing had completely passed me by. If you mentioned the Varsity Boat Race to me before 2005, I’d cast it off as sixteen geeky hunks being bossed about by pocket-size people who wouldn’t be allowed on the rides at Alton Towers.
That was until I went to Oxford.
I can’t claim to understand what the rowers at Oxford and Cambridge go through. I can tell you that they train at least four times the number of hours us Oxford swimmers did. They went through a lot more rigour, hardship and heartache. But what I can understand is that bitter, all-consuming self-doubt when things don’t go your way on the day.
Sport at Oxford University isn’t a hobby. It shapes your university experience. If you’re not careful, it can define who you are. If you let it, it forms a huge part of your self-identity and self-worth. That sport gouges holes elsewhere in your university life – it becomes the reason your college friends haven’t seen you in several days, it’s the reason you’re too knackered to go to the library and your work is suffering – but it’s ok. You’re a Blue. You’re an athlete. So what if you weren’t there to help out when your flat mate broke up with her boyfriend? So what if you’ve got a dodgy essay result? You’re the best that the university has to offer and my God you work hard at to keep it that way.
This all means that the Varsity Match isn’t just a sports competition. It’s the culmination of everything you’ve worked for and everything you’ve sacrificed. Winning the Varsity Match is a bigger aspiration than passing your finals. It’s the ultimate goal you dedicate your entire university career working towards.
So what happens when you lose the Varsity Match? Any sportsman or diehard sports fan understands the sheer crippling disappointment of losing. Perhaps what’s harder to understand is that horrible moment of self-doubt when Oxons and Cantabs think, ‘Hold on a minute. All the training, the early mornings, the late nights, the gym sessions, the jilted friends, the crap essay results. It just wasn’t worth it, was it? I’ve just wasted some of the best years of my life for nothing.’
So to that attention-seeking moron who ducked and weaved between the rowers’ blades today, effectively annihilating an extremely exciting and close race – you cannot possibly begin to understand the pain your 15 minutes of fame has caused.