Today Oxford University beat Cambridge in the 155th annual Boat Race on the river Thames. Despite its age, this most venerable of sporting contests is in some ways very modern: the route gives spectators both on the river banks and on television a chance to see London.
The Olympic Games and the Tour de France have a long history of using sport to draw attention to the attractions of a city but the recognition of the value of sports events for showcasing cities has grown in proportion to the level of sophistication of television outside broadcasts. Helicopters and moving cameras make a big difference.
A classic example is the Monaco Grand Prix, which helps the principality maintain its exclusive brand by having the Formula 1 cars race through the city’s streets. Similarly, the big city marathons which became established in the 1980s (Chicago, New York, Berlin, London, Tokyo and many others), are all routed past the major tourist attractions. More recent innovations include beach volleyball tournaments held in picturesque locations and the Red Bull Air Race series.
Students Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth probably didn’t have helicopters in mind when they organised the first Boat Race in 1829 but huge crowds lined the river banks and the event was a great success. I suspect that then, as now, many of the spectators were drawn as much by curiosity and the opportunity for a day out as by a passion for rowing.
With apologies to the many genuine fans of the big city sports events, it has to be said that they are much easier to watch on television than live. In the days before mobile phones and big screens, it was virtually impossible to follow marathons and cycling road races from beside the course but that didn’t stop the crowds or the sellers of refreshments and memorabilia. Sponsors such as Swatch (Beach Volleyball), Flora (London Marathon) and Xchanging (Boat Race) have long since recognised that there is a valuable opportunity to interact with the live audience at these events and to provide hospitality to important customers.
Today’s Oxford crew, several of them with Olympic and world championship experience, can take satisfaction from their win in one of the fastest ever winning times of 17 minutes. For the Cambridge crew, who trained for six months for this lung-busting race of four and a quarter miles, there is at least the consolation that they can now rest their aching limbs.
And the next time you see a sports event which features a spectacular city backdrop remember that the Boat Race got there first.