Why I’m happy The Boat Race is no longer men-only

Eleanor Oldroyd salutes the changing face of sport as the Oxford/Cambridge battle for watery supremacy admits women for the first time

Flowing past historic London pubs and beneath ornate bridges, the Thames is one of the most famous stretches of river in the world. And on Saturday it will witness the end of one of the biggest inequities in sport.

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I doubt that the 16 oarswomen and two coxes of the Oxford and Cambridge University Women’s Blue boats will be taking in landmarks en route from Putney to Mortlake. Their lungs will be bursting, their limbs will be aching, their hearts will be pounding, but they’ll be making history.

Until this Saturday, the Thames on Boat Race day was strictly Men Only. Their female counterparts were sidelined, either to the Isis in Oxford or the Cam in Cambridge, or more recently to Henley-on-Thames. Now they’ve achieved equality – same course, same distance, same prize money, same BBC TV coverage, to an expected global audience of 100 million. “The Boat Race” has finally become “The Boat Races”.

I think it’s one of the most significant victories yet in the battle to give women equal treatment in the world of sport. As Clare Balding put it, explaining her decision to be on the Thames rather than at the Aintree Grand National for Channel 4, “There will never be another first women’s Boat Race on the Tideway.”

It’s a fair deal, surely. After all, in preparation for race day the women have to go through the same hours of training on freezing mornings, the same blisters, the same sacrifice of social life, as the men.

When Newton Investment Management took over sponsorship of the Women’s Boat Race five years ago, their CEO Helena Morrissey couldn’t believe to what extent the women were the poor relations. Not only was there no funding and therefore no prize money, but they actually had to pay to compete. Morrissey vowed to change this inequality, and she deserves massive credit for doing so.

It’s a game-changing move at a time when women’s sport is at last levelling the playing field. England’s women’s football team played an international at Wembley for the first time last November (Great Britain’s women, of course, played there in the 2012 Olympics), in a friendly against Germany watched by nearly 46,000 people – over 5,000 more than had turned up for the men when they took on Norway a few weeks earlier.

In June, you can watch England compete in the Women’s World Cup in Canada on BBC TV, and listen on Radio5 Live. As airtime increases, sponsors want a part of it, sports are better funded and the standard improves, inspiringmmore girls and women to get active. It’s a virtuous circle, and a very long way from the origins of the women’s Boat Race. 

The first meeting between women’s crews from Oxford and Cambridge was on the Isis in 1927, when female undergraduates made up a tiny minority of the student body. It had been deemed unladylike for the boats to race side by side, so they rowed separately and, according to The Times, were judged on “steadiness, finish, rhythm and other matters of style” (Oxford won, for the record). In 1953, when my mother was cox for the Cambridge boat, she missed out on the race as Oxford weren’t able to raise a crew. Unfortunately they’d been banned from the Isis after rowing over a weir.

So for her, and for all the Light- and Dark-Blue oarswomen who have competed in the women’s Boat Race’s 88-year history, Saturday will be a very special day indeed. 

Radio 5 Live’s Eleanor Oldroyd was recently named broadcast presenter of the year at the British Sports Journalism Awards

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The women’s boat race is at 4.50pm on Saturday, with the men’s race at 5.50pm. Coverage on BBC1, 5 Live Sports Extra and British Eurosport