To spectators, The Boat Race seems the purest of sporting contests – two crews busting a gut for glory. On the water, however, as microphones demonstrated last year when they picked up the obscenities emanating from Oxford cox Oskar Zorrilla, this is a head-to-head rivalry of gladiatorial ferocity.
At 5.55pm on Sunday, the 160th Boat Race will see Cambridge challenge last year’s winners Oxford over four miles, 374 yards (6.8km) on a turbid incoming flood tide – the same conditions every year, hence the changing start time – on the stretch of the River Thames from Putney to Mortlake. The scoreboard stands at 81 wins for the light blues (Cambridge) to 77 for the dark blues. Television viewers are expected to peak at around 4.5 million. Large towpath crowds will create a tunnel of partisan noise.
The stage is set, and one thing is certain. The spotlight will fall on two men: the coxes.
Ian Middleton, aged 18, in the Cambridge boat and his opposite number Laurence Harvey, 20, weigh in at only 8st 6lb and 8st 8lb respectively, but their responsibility is heavy. They are the small men making the big calls. Each must act as tactician, navigator, psychologist and cheerleader. And the cox can make the difference between winning and losing.
Middleton, the youngest man by some margin in this year’s race, is tasked with calling the shots to a Cambridge engine comprising eight power- houses whose average height is 6ft 6in, weight 14st 7lb and age 24 years.
“Coming directly from school to university, it did take time to adjust from coxing guys my age to guys older than me,” he admits. “But through the winter training I’ve got used to it. It’s these long months of selection and crew formation that build up the relationship.”
Unlike straight-lane 2,000m world championship lakes, the Tideway produces changing conditions over its meandering course. “Steering the line in order to put your crew in the best possible position with another crew alongside is a very different challenge,” Middleton says. “If the boats come close together, you have to hit the correct balance of pushing to be in the stream but also being in your own water. If you’re in your own water, then you need the confidence to hold your line.
“On top of steering, there are the tactics – what to do when the opposition make their big move, when to push to stay in the race or to break clear. These calls need to be quick and decisive as the race can change in a short space of time.”
The job requires a cool head and self-assurance, qualities both coxes can claim. Last year Harvey coxed Oxford reserve boat Isis to a canny win over Cambridge’s Goldie; Middleton takes confidence from steering his Abingdon School first VIII to victory last year in the National Schools Regatta and the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at Henley. “In the end we’ve got to make sure that we deal with any situations that occur on the river to the best of our ability,” he says. Too right.
British Eurosport (Sun 5.30pm) and 5 Live Sports Extra (5.55pm) also have coverage of the Boat Race
Picture from left to right: Oxford Stroke Constantine Louloudis, Oxford Cox Laurence Harvey, Cambridge Cox Ian Middleton and Cambridge Stroke Henry Hoffstot