Monday, April 9, 2012

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

As demonstrations at sporting events go, Trenton Oldfield’s front crawl into the Boat Race was hardly the most profound. It certainly did not contain the heroic martyrdom of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the king’s horse during the 1913 Derby. Nor did it have the wonderfully wry wit of Angus Loughran who took a chair out to batsman Chris Tavare during a particularly dull patch of cricket. Seemingly Oldfield targeted the Boat Race as a protest against elitism. It wasn’t the best target, or the best demonstration I have ever seen, but for all my mild criticisms – I’m really not a fan of voluntarism in a wetsuit - I didn’t half enjoy it!

And it certainly pissed people off, prompting the most wonderfully haughty letter in the Telegraph, which said, “The disgraceful sabotage of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race was an assault on the values and traditions of our society”! Sky News went to town on Trenton suggesting that a man who was privately educated and has a MSc from the London School of Economics doesn’t have much of a right to challenge elitism. Masters degrees might not be ten-a-penny amongst the working class, but nor do they mark you out as a member of the nobility nowadays. Besides which it’s not the greatest act of hypocrisy one can imagine. It’s not as though it’s Harold Shipman lecturing on GP’s ethics, or Rupert Murdoch presenting a discussion of journalistic standards. Or for that matter making Tony Blair the Middle East peace envoy.

Just about every news report carried mention of the Twitter outrage of Oxford rower William Zeng. Amid his denunciations of Oldfield as “a mockery of a man” came the claim that rowing is an example of a fair and honourable pursuit. In so doing Zeng was appealing to the tradition that sees sports as a level playing field, a meritocratic space where the inequalities of everyday life are suspended. But of course that’s simply not true, and in the case of the Boat Race it’s an outright nonsense. To be eligible to compete you have to be a student at either Oxford or Cambridge, universities that still have a woeful record of taking students from state schools, and who talk of taking on more working class students in terms of “outreach”.

If the two boat crews really want to preach the virtue of reward after years of hard work then perhaps they would like to come out in support of those millions of workers who thought they were getting a half-decent pension but who are now getting shafted by the government. Perhaps they just don’t want to stick their oar in… While the papers debated the right to disrupt sporting events what was really being defended was the right of the Oxbridge elite to show off their pomp and circumstance in front of the world.

The most worrying thing about the whole affair is that the government will use this as an excuse to pump even more public money into security for the Olympics. It’s already the case that the cost of providing security at the games has almost doubled to a mind boggling £553 million, not to mention that following pressure from the Americans the government have plans to deploy ground to air missiles to protect the Olympics. While these might deter Al-Qaeda I can’t imagine they’ll be much use against situationist swimmers. But as Sir Colin Moynihan suggested, just one idiot might be enough to disrupt the 2012 London Olympics, though this is hardly fair since there’s every possibility that by then Boris won’t be mayor anyway.  Still the Boat Race is run, nobody died, one of the two indistinguishable teams claimed victory and life goes on. Oar’s well that ends well.