We have just seen the usual flurry of reportage, analysis and comment about the Boat Race. I decline to call it the BNY Mellon Boat Race, which is probably a failure in etiquette, but I do intend to add my might to the outpourings from scribes around the world about this unique and fascinating race. As an aside, how many other sporting events are identified by simply the addition of a couple of upper case letters to a generic description? Is there the Horse Race or the Football Match?
I spent three years involved in the race and came to love the contest. It is certainly different from any other race or match I have ever experienced. Many things come together to make the unique mix that is this race. A course that is undefined except in the mind of the umpire, and certainly not fair and equal and sterile the way that we try to make our 2000m rowing tracks; A format of racing that allows a crew to cut in front of the opposition once they have a lead and makes the race effectively a sprint until you are in front or can’t hang on to the other crew any more – some races have been won in the first 10 strokes and a few have lasted for the whole 17 minutes or more; A set or racing rules that don’t admit the possibility of a weather delay; these are some of the special things about this race.
Another unique feature is the frequent cries of “Elitism”. The competitors come from two of the best universities in the world and this seems to rile some observers, including the idiot who swam out in front of the boats last year. But what is the alternative to elitism in universities? I want my doctor, my engineer, my lawyer and my writers, and even my bankers to be the best they can possibly be. To be part of an elite! Not everybody has equal ability – that may not be fair but it is true. All of us benefit if we identify and encourage the best of our fellow humans to stretch themselves and perform to the best of their ability. To do this they need training and if you select the best and put them together then the institution you have created can be called elitist.
It seems to me that all high level sporting events must be elitist by definition; once there is selection to be in a team the team must be an elite. My observation of Cambridge certainly led me to believe that entry to those gilded portals was largely based on ability and not on social standing, and I know that selection for the crews that represent both Oxford and Cambridge is rigorously based on merit. Both clubs are open to any student at the university who happens to be male.
Elitism is good. Whether it is to find and train the best academics, or the best rowers, I am a fan of elitism and stringent selection.
Discrimination is not good. Keeping someone out of an elite organisation based on anything other than ability goes strongly against everything I believe. But elitism and discrimination are not the same thing. Rowing is a sport where it is relatively easy to measure performance and we should celebrate elitism in our sport and encourage our best and brightest to aim for the top.