The 160th Boat Race between the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge takes place on the River Thames in London on Sunday, an event rich in tradition – and accusations of professionalism.
The Light Blues of Cambridge and the Dark Blues of Oxford have been training on the Thames since last weekend, the crews carefully avoiding each other.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of spectators will line the banks of the river to watch the two crews composed of eight rowers and a cox.
But taking a break from intensive training this week, both crews were keen to stress that there is more to their lives than rowing – and that the rigorous academic standards of Britain’s two most prestigious universities apply to them too.
“Sometimes I just can’t train them because they have too many things to do,” Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore, who won a rowing gold medal for Britain at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, said.
So it’s a pre-dawn start to fit in the first training session.
“We wake up at 5.30 am. We train around 3-4 hours a day. We row 25 miles (41 kilometres) a day,” said Cambridge captain Steve Dudek, a 25-year-old American.
After the morning session, the rowers rush to lectures, then it’s back on the water in the afternoon before hitting the books again.
The Boat Race was created in 1829 and is now rowed over 6.8 kilometres. It was famously disrupted in 2012 when Australian anti-elitism protester Trenton Oldfield swam between the boats, forcing the race to be re-started.
Cambridge holds the historical edge at present, with 81 wins to 77 by Oxford.
Although the race now has global appeal and a major US bank for a sponsor, the Cambridge crew insisted it had lost nothing of its tradition — and its amateur status — in their eyes.
“Things changed in the nineties with the sponsors. Both universities have recruited professional coaches, physiotherapists, biomechanics specialists and dieticians. But the rowers are still amateurs. They’re not paid,” said Chris Baillieu, who won the race with Cambridge a record four times in the 1970s.
As proof, he said he was putting up the Cambridge rowers at his home, in contrast to the luxury hotels of professional sportsmen.
Technology has made dramatic changes to the race over the years, with wooden boats replaced by fibre-glass.
The rowers’ bodies have undergone a transformation too — this year the Cambridge team averages 1.97 metres in height and 92 kilograms, roughly the same as their Oxford rivals.
“A long time ago, they trained for two or three months,” said Trapmore.
“Now, they start training in October. It lasts six or seven months.”
Amateur or not, the Boat Race line-ups have impressive sporting CVs.
Three of Oxford’s nine competitors are Olympic medallists and there are a handful of junior world champions.
Rupert Wood, a teenager who rows for Dulwich College, a private school in London, was watching the teams go through their paces — and dreaming of one day taking part.
“This is the old question, do these students get admitted for their rowing talent or for their intellectual capabilities? Some of them may be there thanks to rowing,” he conceded.
On Sunday, seven Britons will take part, alongside six Americans, two Canadians, two New Zealanders and a German.
Nothing new there, said Chris Baillieu.
“It was already the same 40 years ago. There have always been foreigners. They don’t come only for rowing,” he told AFP.
“Our German is studying for a PhD in theoretical physics.”
Steve Trapmore is convinced that if the sponsorship ended and the corporate hospitality tents no longer came, the race would go on.
“The race would still happen if there were no TV and no sponsors. It’s two crews trying to beat each other. And that’s what it’s all about,” he told AFP.
True to form, asked what were the differences between the two crews, Trapmore could not resist giving a partisan answer.
“The only difference,” he said with a smile, “is that Cambridge is better.”