This time we are the losers

26th March 2004 at 00:00
wIt's the Boat Race this weekend. The 150th, and the last ever one on the BBC. Well, you probably knew that: either because you are looking forward to it and plan to watch it while wearing a straw boater and striped blazer and clutching an old college oar, or else because you think it is a disgracefully elitist anachronism, and you wouldn't dream of sullying your mind by caring.

This could either be because you are a rowing purist, and feel that Oxford and Cambridge aren't even the best rowing eights in the UK, let alone universities, though they get all the glory; or it could be because even without the taint of "Oxbridge" you don't intend to waste your life watching overbred giants with geography degrees sweating their way along a muddy river while braying geeks exclaim pointlessly into lip-mikes.

Either way, you can't escape it. What with vintage boat races and the celebrity reconstruction and the ITV takeover, it's the Boat Race's big year. Might as well sit back and enjoy it, as generations have. My husband, reared in a working-class family in Sheffield in the 1950s, remembers that everybody always knew whether they were "for" Oxford or Cambridge, even if they had left school at 14 for the steelworks. It is one of those national sporting events that by tradition is permitted to grip the unsporting - like the FA Cup Final or the Grand National.

I have to admit that I am a closet fan, an old fascination having been lately revived by becoming the mother of an oarsman, albeit a lightweight one and not one of the huge Pinsentosaurus Rex creatures in the big race.

When you have rowing in the family you learn a bit about the extraordinary focus, the subtleties of tide and pace, the extraordinarily effortful training, the inter-relationship of eight men who cannot even see one another's faces, and the heartbreak of failure. You learn respect.

You watch True Blue on the video. You groan and cheer. And, when it comes to the race itself, you feel every twinge of agony in your own bones.

Last year, with the neck-and-neck struggle and the final victory of Oxford by one stroke, I fell off the sofa with emotion, alternately shrieking "Oxford! You can do it! Go!" from the macho half of my brain and from the maternal side, racked by the pain on the close-up cameras "Careful boys! You'll have a heart attack! It's not worth it!"

And then there is the moment, pure and intense, when joy floods through the half-dead winners, and bitter, unassuageable sorrow comes over the losers.

For here there is no second place, no proxime-accessit, no silver medal, barely any congratulations for a near miss. You win, and are blessed, or you lose and look back in sorrow at the waste of all those 5.30am starts, all those hours in the gym, that grim winter training on the icy waters, the drinks and rich dinners rejected.

I suppose this, too, is education. We ought to be opening doors on to parallel universes, older worlds, Spartan moments lost to soft modern society. We at the liberal, soft-hearted end of things have built a world for plucky losers, personal bests, relative successes and value-added improvers. We have forgotten - except in the narrow world of sport - the hard old values of winner-takes-all, and the ancient bitterness of the loser who slinks into the dark.

Children know it instinctively; the early disappointments of not winning a race draw the corners of their little mouths down in pure antique Spartan sorrow. We rush to reassure them, to commend their failed effort, to belittle the winning and laud the taking part. We are right to do it, we are civilised, we are kind, we know we must help them pave the way for the next effort and never let the word "waste" cross their minds.

But they know really. They know that a loser of a close, hard-fought competition undergoes a stab of misery. They know how much it costs losers in self-control to do that smiling Tim Henman handshake or take that lonely walk to the pavilion without flouncing. They know how fabulous it is to win, to hold that cup aloft. It is hard-wired into all of us, it is primitive, it is necessary.

And the Boat Race - most black-and-white and edgy and unpredictable of sporting events - speaks to that deep knowledge. We need those cameras tracked in on sweaty masks of tragedy and of joy, to remind us what it is to be alive and striving.

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