Getting 16 men into mint condition just-in-time means management. Nick Hasell finds those responsible relaxed about it.
At a quarter past three on the afternoon of the last Saturday in March, the longest running series in world sport - otherwise known as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race - will abruptly resume. At the drop of the umpire's flag, two crews will set off from the University Stone by Putney Bridge and row flat-out for the next four and a quarter miles. Thousands will gather on the banks of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake, millions more around the world will watch the race on television, and old Blues will stir in their armchairs. Helicopters will circle overhead, radio and TV masts line the river and a flotilla of launches carrying journalists, photographers and coaches will eagerly follow the action. What started in 1829 as a private contest between two friends at rival universities has since become a very public annual ritual.
This year there is an added twist. Though Oxford have won 16 of the last 17 races, Cambridge hold the overall balance of victories by 69 to 68 (with one dead heat). Hence, for the first time since 1928, there is a clear opportunity to level the score. For some, at least, a century and a half of varsity tradition hangs in the balance.
If it is an issue which preoccupies seasoned observers, it is surprisingly not one that appears to weigh heavily on either crew. "To us it's a race like any other year," observes Matthew Pinsent, the laconic president of Oxford University Boat Club. "It perhaps means more to the old Blues than it does to the crew." James Behrens, his counterpart at Cambridge, concurs.
However casual the public demeanour of the presidents, Pinsent and Behrens have more on their minds than historical score-settling. What they are engrossed in is an extremely exacting and very public task of management. All the tenets of current management theology - from total quality and just-in-time to notions of teamwork and individual responsibility - are equally applicable here. It is arguably the most demanding role placed on a student in any sport. The president of each club must select the crew and the coaches, train with them on a day-to-day basis, co-ordinate the logistics of training and take ultimate responsibility for the crew's performance. All this must be reconciled with a course of regular study and the preparation for final exams. It is, by any standards, a formidable burden.
Twenty-two-year-old Pinsent, 6ft 5in and 16 stone, has a daunting record of sporting achievement. He is a veteran of two Oxford Boat Race victories, an Olympic gold medallist and world rowing champion (the first Oxford president to be both a world and Olympic champion while holding office). Behrens is 23, 6ft 5in and a mere 14 stone. He has a solid varsity record but is less experienced in top-level competition. It is perhaps an indication of the close-knit world of rowing that their paths first crossed many years earlier at prep school in Yorkshire. Neither, however, recalls scenes of playground rivalry.
Pinsent describes his introduction to rowing with disarming simplicity. "When I was at school we had a choice between rowing and cricket," he explains. "I wasn't much good at cricket so I took up rowing."
Behrens had an older brother who rowed for Imperial College. "I took up rowing very much against his advice," he recalls. "He taught me first and foremost that a race is the culmination of 12 months of training." Despite the warning he was soon beguiled. It is a lesson he has since come to learn the hard way.
The long haul to the Tideway begins the previous April when both clubs meet to elect their presidents. The duties of the president are formally enshrined in the club constitutions but can, in practice, seem quite contradictory. For example, the president selects the coaches but is subject to their regime; he selects the crew but has no automatic place in the boat himself. Indeed, on more than one occasion the president has spent the race watching from the banks. "If there are better people than me I stand aside," claims Behrens. "I don't want to put out a boat that is any slower than it need be. I'd be disappointed, but sometimes the pressures can mean you just don't perform." To ensure that the pressures of the post interfere with the rowing as little as possible, both presidents will pass on some of the routine administrative work on to others within the club. For the past few years Oxford has employed a director of rowing for exactly that purpose.
Training begins in earnest at the start of term in October. For both crews it is a murderous round of early winter mornings in sub-zero temperatures, of swimming, running, bench rowing, sculling, circuit training and weights. Each crew typically trains for six hours a day, six days a week - Oxford on the Thames at Wallingford, Cambridge on the harsher fenland waters of the Ouse at Ely. While technology has given the crews sleeker boats, lighter oars and more effective methods of preparation (they now use ergometers to test stamina and strength and stop-frame video to analyse and re-analyse imperfections in technique) the challenge of the final contest remains the same - a race three times the length of the most similar Olympic event that takes place on sometimes rough tidal waters (it is proudly claimed that the race has never been postponed because of unrowable conditions).
The trial eights, held in December on the Tideway, are a rare opportunity for hard, side-by-side competition over the full length of the course. It is also where the media scrutiny begins, where sportswriters gather to study the form and mark their cards. It is where you see close-up just what outstanding athletes these men are, how fast the boats knife through the water, how precisely and synchronously they row. Trial crews are picked for as even a contest as possible rather than for final placings. The more lasting selection decisions usually take place at the training camps held in January.
This year Cambridge chose to seek refuge from the fens and train at Banyoles in Spain, the site of last summer's Olympic triumphs. Oxford stayed at home and spent a less glamorous couple of weeks in Barnes. "It's here that you put the guys you want to test in the key seats and see how they perform," observes Pinsent. The president, in conjunction with the coaches, continually looks at potential combinations and how they work together. It is a constant process of reorganisation, of gauging the impact of individual styles and weights on overall performance. As both presidents admit, there is no single prescription for a fast crew. "We obviously try to select the best people, but if they don't fit together then we have to allow for that," observes Behrens. "In this way the boat almost selects itself."
Timing is everything. A crew must be brought to the peak of physical fitness and psychological readiness exactly on that last Saturday in March. Any sooner and the impetus is easily dissipated. Behrens is still mindful of the previous race. "Last year was initially a very good year for Cambridge. In many ways we were as well prepared as we could have been. We produced a good boat a few weeks before the race but, from there, things gradually degenerated. On the day we didn't perform. There's no second chance." The task ahead, he reflects, is "to build on the good points of last year and fill in the gaps".
A lot of this has taken the form of a greater concentration on exercises that build endurance - for example, rowing on an ergometer at 70% of maximum exertion for 100 minutes. Apart from building physical strength, the president must ensure that crew morale is high. "I suppose you could call it personnel management," says Behrens. "It's simply a matter of getting the most out of everybody." Behrens also has to deal with the psychological scars of defeat, which, after one Cambridge win in 17 years, must go deep. Given the situation, a victory would be particularly sweet, especially when there is the prospect of being feted as the president who broke the Oxford stranglehold.
Last year Oxford faced a major setback a few weeks before the race when one of the crew died in training (the result of an undetected tumour). The effect on both morale and performance, reflects Pinsent, was "catastrophic". Nevertheless, the crew was hastily reconstituted and came back to win, by a length and a half.
The penultimate two weeks are spent by the Thames. It is a time of intensive training when the crews spend day and night together and, in theory, come to mesh into seamless units. Months of meticulous preparation must be distilled and then unleashed as one furious 20-minute burst.
After the race Behrens's and Pinsent's careers look set to take opposite courses. If Pinsent can find the necessary sponsorship, he intends to return to his Olympic partnership with Steven Redgrave and concentrate on rowing full time. The long-term goal is a second gold in the coxless pairs at Atlanta (it would be Redgrave's fourth). Behrens, on the other hand, will follow up his post-graduate course in law by taking articles with London City solicitors Freshfields.
Exactly how far the cachet of a Blue will take you in later life is hard to pinpoint. If the record of former Blues is anything to go by, it is certainly not a setback. Previous Oxbridge Blues have gone on to become captains of industry, ministers for sport (Colin Moynihan) and sages of corporate governance (Sir Adrian Cadbury). What crew members take with them into their professional life is an overriding sense of teamwork. It's a word that has much currency in contemporary management gospel. It implies self-discipline, determination, a will to endure and, more critically, a will to win - qualities that will take them far in any business, but not so far that they will not be among the old Blues who gather at the riverside to relive the experience of how it was.