Hurrah! Finally the women’s boat race is taking place. On the same day as the men’s race. At last.
Rowing has had a very sorry history for undervaluing the achievements of women rowers. Despite a lack of funding and status, female rowers have struggled on to compete in a sport that until very recently didn’t want them there.
I speak as a former oarswoman in the first four of my university. We looked on with envy at the professional coach, trainers and equipment that the men had. They were excellent rowers and fully deserved the support they had. We in turn had an old tank of a boat, that was so heavy we gave our opponents an immediate advantage. We had to self fund including buying our kit to represent our university. Often there were no changing rooms for us at regattas: that was only for men, so we had to use the minibus or behind the bushes… literally.
We didn’t have the opportunity to row at Henley: women couldn’t possibly row in that holy stretch of the river Thames. And sadly the sport as a whole was regarded as a laughing stock or interesting ‘eye candy’ for the male rowers.
Anna Watkins, the gold medalist from the 2012 Olympics with the legendary Katherine Grainger said that she found it very difficult to compete for Cambridge University when she was there. She didn’t have the financial backing to pay for expensive kit, special diet and give up paid work in the holidays in order to train. The men’s teams at the university had sponsored funding that allowed them to have the best equipment, kit, specific food etc which made their training so much easier.
It wasn’t until 1997 that women’s rowing received funding; it was a real challenge to be able to compete at Olympic level when the sportswomen had to have jobs AND train. The 2012 Olympics was a defining moment for women’s rowing in this country. Not only did the wonderful Katherine Grainger win gold with Anna Watkins, but two other pairs won gold medals. Given that there are fewer races for women to compete in, this was an outstanding result and it eclipsed the excellent men’s results.
Tomorrow will be a very special day for women’s sport and in particular for any woman that has sat in a boat dreaming of competing in the Boat Race or at Henley. So remember to watch the Women’s Boat Race tomorrow.