There’s nothing in sport quite like the agony on the faces of the rowers at the finish of the Boat Races. Look at them: twisted in pain, tortured by regret, haunted by the feeling that nothing on earth is worth going through that for. Never again!
And that’s just the winners. The losers are a hundred times worse. “Not good!” said Matthew Pinsent, his voice full of the recollection of that day in 1993. He had already won his first Olympic gold medal, but that didn’t help him out on the Tideway as Cambridge beat Oxford, blasting past them at the start, going clear before the Mile Post and cruising away in front of them for the next all-but-four miles.
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Pinsent, newly returned from covering the events at the Winter Olympic Sliding Centre, will be part of the BBC’s Boat Races coverage. He finished his rowing career with four Olympic gold medals, two Boat Race wins – 1990 and 1991 – and that awful, unforgettable defeat.
“We’ve never had a reunion,” he says. “The winning crews, yes, we’ve met up. But that losing crew – well, after 25 years, we’re finally going to get together and have a beer.” The pain will be less intense after a quarter of a century, but the memory of it can’t be obliterated.
“Winning is great. But it was as if I didn’t know how good winning wasuntil I lost the Boat Race. And a lot of that defeat has to rest with me. None of us gave our best when it mattered. A lot of the people in that crew had the Olympics as a future aim, and some of us already had Olympic experience. So the Boat Race wasn’t the most important thing in our lives… and you’ve got to row the race as if your life depends on it. It went spectacularly wrong.”
This is a piercingly honest assessment. Pinsent has carried the guilt for more than half his life – not as a piece of self-hating neurosis, but as an awareness of what sport means, of what responsibility means in sport, and of the way impossibly small things can make the difference between victory and defeat. In his last race at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, Pinsent’s crew, the coxless four, won by eight hundredths of a second.
The pain of the Boat Races is not just about the physical demands of the course, which is more than three times longer than the Olympic distance. It also comes from the fact that it takes six months of training to get there.
“Training for the Boat Races is no more intense than winter training for the Olympics,” says Pinsent. “The difference is that in bad weather, you wouldn’t train on the water if you were training for the Olympics. But in the Boat Races, bad weather training is the point. You’ve no idea what the weather will be like in March, so you need to be prepared.
“What makes the training difficult is that you’re a student, not a full-time athlete, and you need to keep up with lectures, essays, lab work, tutorials. I read geography, and the head of the department said at the start, ‘Everybody who comes here wants to take on at least ten things. But you can only do two things really well – and one of them is going to be geography.’ I was 19 when I heard that and it made good sense.”
The Boat Races take place on a living river, and have something that international events lack: side-by-side racing. The brutal simplicities of that two-team format give a special intensity to the proceedings.
How awful it was for Pinsent, looking to his right in the first minute of the race and seeing not his opposite number from the Cambridge boat but the stroke, then the cox, then the rudder, and then later, no boat at all, lost from sight until the frightful finish at Mortlake. “It’s an amazing experience,” says Pinsent. “It’s an amazing experience, even if you lose.” Or, perhaps, especially.
The Boat Races air on Saturday 24th March at 3.50pm on BBC1