Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Olympic medals for Rowing Blues

It's often been said that rowing Blues (those who have competed in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race) are comparable to oarsmen of international stature. A look at our recent Olympic record suggests why this is so. 

The coxless four that took Britain’s third successive Gold on Saturday included three Blues: Oxford’s Pete Reed (2005) and Andy Triggs-Hodge (2005) and bowman Tom James, the former Cambridge oarsman (2003, 2005, 2006 & 2007). (Tom, incidentally, plays a major role in The Last Amateurs as President of the CUBC.)

The British crew that took silver in the Men’s Eight included Cambridge Blues Josh West (1998, 1999, 2000 & 2001) and Tom Stallard (1999, 2000, 2001 & 2002), Oxford’s Colin Smith (2004 & 2006) and was steered by Dark Blue cox Acer Nethercott (2003, 2004 & 2005). They were beaten by an impressive Canadian boat that featured another Oxford Blue, Jake Wetzel (2006).

What makes these athletes so fascinating? Is it their invincibility? Their god-like nature? Their unrelenting commitment to physical hardship? Or is it something else altogether? 

I wonder if, rather than their invincibility, it is perhaps their humanity that binds our fate to theirs. After all, they are so very like us. Their achievements may be Phelpsian to be sure but that's not what makes them a source of fascination. Rather, it is that they are, like us, vulnerable: flawed, irritable, intolerant, impatient, insecure. Lovable.

(A good source of Boat Race information is found at www.theboatrace.org)

Why I Wrote What I Wrote...

People have asked me why I wrote what I wrote and why I wrote it the way I wrote it - rather than in another way. Why not write a scholarly monograph instead? Why spend two years generating something that doesn't "count" for REA (Research Assessment Exercise) purposes? Why not focus on inducing general principles instead, or maybe some sort of model or analytical framework? Perhaps an algorithm even?

The answer is quite simple, really. I wanted to try and give readers an authentic sense of the visceral and highly emotional world of Cambridge University rowers. So much of our world is intuitive and primeval and emotional - think of fear, hope, lust, ambition, prejudice, cowardice, exhaustion, gratitude - and yet this is precisely this sort of stuff that gets lost (or is ignored) in academic writing.

Thus, the book is deliberately evocative rather than scholarly. That said, the ethnographic research on which it draws is rigorous. I went to great pains to identify my role and perspective as these evolved throughout the seven-month period. Though ethnography will never be free of impartiality, these references to myself allow the reader to see the observer and his subjects co-evolve.

Nowhere is this relation between subject and observer more poignantly expressed than in David Lodge's academic novel Small World:

The dancer teases the audience, as the text teases its readers, with the promise of an ultimate revelation that is infinitely postponed. Veil after veil, garment after garment, is removed, but it is the delay in the stripping that makes it exciting, not the stripping itself; because no sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another. When we have seen the girl’s underwear we want to see her body, when we have seen her breasts we want to see her buttocks, and when we have seen her buttocks we want to see her pubis, and when we see her pubis, the dance ends – but is our curiosity and desire satisfied? Of course not. The vagina remains hidden within the girl’s body, shaded by her pubic hair, and even if she were to spread her legs before us it would still not satisfy the curiosity and desire set into motion by the stripping. Staring into the orifice we find that we have somehow overshot the goal of our quest, gone beyond pleasure in contemplating beauty; gazing into the womb we are returned to the mystery of our own origins.

As it happens, I did actually try to write myself out of the story, and might have got away with it too. The result would have been the one masquerading for the many, a particular voice mistaken for the megaphone of a society. It would have been dishonest.

There is thus a strong subtext to the narrative. There are several, in fact. Depending on the reader’s background and interests, it can be read as a realist sports book (in supplying a warts-and-all account of the 2007 Cambridge Boat Race crew), as a business book (as it articulates important traits of high-performance teams), as an ethnography (specifically designed to tease at the boundary of ethnography and auto-ethnography, as well as a gender ethnography), as an example of C. Wright Mills’ ‘sociological imagination’ (in highlighting the temporal and dialectical nature of high-performance teams), or even as something far more existential.

Or you can just enjoy it for what it is.