Belfast Telegraph

All aboard for a big row as we navigate choppy waters at the Boat Race

By Billy Weir

As crowds thronged to Westminster and neighbouring parishes on Saturday evening, it wasn't a case of one man, one vote, more of 16 women, two boats and a pair of wee noisy people as the Boat Race became the Boat Races.

For those of you who have been living below a rock on the banks of the Thames this, the 70th year of the Women's Boat Race, was historic as for the first time it was held alongside the unfairer sex's annual toffs' shindig in London.

Surprisingly Cambridge and Oxford had made it through to the women's final as well - what were the odds on that? - and such was the epoch-making nature of the day, Clare Balding had already cast her vote on the most difficult voting choice - equine or maritime?

She plumped for the latter, abandoning the Grand National for women messing about in boats, and there was a certain irony given the long history that horse racing has had with the suffragette movement down the years - but thankfully it wasn't Derby Day or her dilemma would have been even bigger.

Instead of a desperate woman throwing herself in front of unsuspecting horses at Tattenham Corner, we had another desperate one, Helen Skelton, chucking herself at a myriad of posh people, being posh and quaffing lashings and lashings of Pimms.

Clare wasn't far away though, her voice booming over the top of a panoramic view of the Thames, a bit like a live action version of the opening titles from Eastenders, except that all commoners had been removed and there wasn't a Dot or Sharon to be seen for miles around.

"This is a spectacle as well as a sporting event," insisted Clare, with a slight hint of getting her defence in early as we all knew that the 'race' was about to be as competitive as Pat Butcher taking on Paula Radcliffe over the Marathon course.

"Today is different and this is the reason why - the women of Oxford arriving here. This is a piece of history as for the very first time female rowers will be taking on the same course, in the same conditions, with the same coverage."

Indeed and emancipated rowers from housing estates, high rise council flats and terraced houses across the land were seen to be hurling off their bras, swapping jeggings and fake Ugg boots for lycra rowing shorts and wellies and roaming the streets looking for seven like-minded commoners and a small friend to take to the water in a boat cunningly fashioned from a shopping trolley, discarded needles and a dead dog.

Back in London, the posh quotient was enhanced by Sir Matthew Pinsent who, as Who Do You Think You Are fans will know, is directly descended from Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, an early feminist visionary who was two-thirds of the way to creating a coxless, and in some cases, headless, eight for the 1548 Olympic Games before he kicked the bucket.

BBC'S current flavour of the month, Jason Mohammad, had also come along and he put things in harsh perspective.

"There's no prize for second place, you either win or you lose, it's as simple as that," he said and I'm sure I heard Nick Berry's haunting melodic musings wafting in across the Thames, but there was no time for a Cockney knees-up, it was time for more soundbites from Clare.

"It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition and today we're witnessing the birth of a new tradition, this is no longer the Boat Race, but welcome to the Boat Races," she continued.

Girl power continued with Olympic heroine Anna Watkins, the one who isn't Katharine Grainger, and former cox, Zoe de Toledo, expressing the belief that, "this is going to give other women in the country something to strive for" and no doubt family allowance books were being cashed in for oars all around.

To further exemplify the new all-inclusive nature of the event, Clare was joined on her compact and bijou riverside location by the not at all posh Andy Triggs-Hodge and Tom Jones. Are they mad, with all those women around they'll end up chucking their wellies at him. Oh, Tom James, not Jones. Well, that would have been unusual.

Clearly Clare was sensing the cynicism of those watching from afar with the best party political broadcast we're going to hear anytime soon.

"Today's event represents progress, it represents fairness, it represents parity, it also represents the ability to celebrate female power and strength because this is about more than sport, it's about sticking your oar in and making waves," she implored.

And I'm sure single mothers who work their fingers to the bone in a struggle to put food on the table for their kids had a warm and satisfied glow inside them because a lot of posh women were now getting to play with a lot of posh men.

As for the race? Well, there wasn't one really, Oxford created history by becoming the first (apart from the previous 69) winners and Cambridge the first losers, but as Clare said, "we've seen one-sided races like that in the men's race many times" and there was a suggestion of getting her retaliation in first.

We get the message, ladies it's great to have you on board, well done to Oxford, whose men, incidentally, also won. As Clare concluded: "April 11, 2015 will forever go down as the day when finally the women were allowed to take part in this historic, most traditional event, the start of a new chapter."

Indeed, but it's a book that will continue to be out of the reach of the majority of women and men, but I'm not here to start a row.

Belfast Telegraph


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