Lightweight celebration at Henley Boat Races
When lightweight men were first recognised at international level in rowing in 1974, it sparked an idea for Richard Bates, then a student at Cambridge University, Great Britain.
A year later the first lightweight men’s Boat Race was staged between Oxford and Cambridge Universities and last weekend the 40th anniversary of that first race saw Cambridge take a 1.2m victory over their traditional rivals.
The race’s more famous (heavyweight) counterpart has been going since 1829 and is rowed over a 6800m twisting course on the River Thames in south-west London.
But Bates decided to run his lightweight race over a 2000m course on one of the world’s most famous regatta courses 64km upstream from London, at Henley-on-Thames.
Two years later, the Women’s Boat Race joined the lightweights at Henley, having previously been staged alternately between Oxford and Cambridge. And when lightweight women’s rowing was recognised internationally in 1984 that spawned another race to add to the “Henley Boat Races.”
“The first event wasn’t very well attended – in fact no-one really knew it was happening at all,” said Bates, who attended the event as the guest of honour to present the trophies, travelling from his home now in the United States.
Today the Henley Boat Races attract thousands of spectators, with a partisan crowd including friends and families of the participating athletes, as well as students and alumni of the two universities.
The departure of the Women’s Boat Race to London, where it will be staged for the first time over the same course as the men and on the same day (11 April 2015), means that only the two lightweight races remain at Henley.
And if anyone thought that might detract from the quality of the racing then last Sunday’s action was to prove them wrong. Cambridge’s 1.2m verdict in the men’s race had only been bettered on one previous occasion, when there was less than a metre margin in 2010.
Oxford, with New Zealander Ed Stace rowing in five-seat in an otherwise all-British crew, took the early lead, and looked set to move away. But Cambridge, with Germans Tim Rademacher and Moritz Matthey on board, along with Raffaele Nicholas Russo of Italy, gathered their race pace, pulled back the deficit and took over the lead. In a tightly fought race, with never more than a length between the crews, Oxford tried repeatedly to come back, but Cambridge squeezed across the line to go 25-16 up in the series.
And the verdict was even closer in the lightweight women’s race where Cambridge also triumphed, this time by just 0.9m. Neither crew was able to celebrate as they crossed the line until they heard the official verdict from the finish judges.
“I didn’t know who had won, but then the word came through, and I was just so happy,” said Ella Barnard, the Cambridge captain, and a member of last year’s losing crew.
“I’m definitely thinking of doing it again next year – I feel much more complete now I’ve won,” she added.
“I’m very impressed with the way the event has grown in popularity and interest over the last 40 years – who knows what the next 40 might bring?” said Bates.