At 4.50pm today 18 women in two shades of blue will make history on the Thames. The men’s Boat Race, along a gruelling 4.2-mile (6.8km) course on the Thames from Putney to Mortlake, is a British institution in the spring calendar.
But for the past four decades Oxford and Cambridge’s women rowers have raced a much shorter – 2km – course at Henley the week before the men with little fanfare.
That all changes today. In a watershed moment for women’s sport, both the men and women will row the same course on the same day and with the same television coverage.
Olympic rowing gold medallist Katherine Grainger told the i paper:
This is a big change for women’s sport and women’s rowing. The Boat Race is one of those very long-standing traditions. Probably the first way I was aware of rowing was the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. It’s an institution, like the Grand National.
This is a massive and momentous occasion for women’s rowing and there’ll be a lot of pride in seeing it.
There has been a women’s Boat Race on and off since the 1920s but it has always been the poor relation to the men’s contest. Many felt that women should not be allowed to row – let alone compete – and the two boats had to be timed separately rather than side-by-side to protect their oarswomen from accident.
This is the first time the women will race on the choppy tidal stretch of the Thames from Putney to Mortlake, something which Ms Winckless believes could not have happened while they were still amateur. Until five years ago, the women’s team did not have proper sponsors and participants had to pay in order to train and receive coaching.