Rowing’s not just for toffs, insists local coach

Trenton Oldfield grabbed headlines worldwide when he dived into the River Thames on Saturday and swam between the Oxford and Cambridge crews, stopping the Boat Race.

He said he was protesting against elitism – suggesting the sport is only for the privileged – but one observer feels his actions have had the opposite effect, and believes portraying rowing as a sport for toffs undermines the work of community clubs and coaches, who make it accessible to anyone.

Steve O’Connor, who works as a coaching and development officer at Barn Elms Boathouse, on the Thames opposite Craven Cottage, wrote an ‘open letter’ challenging Oldfield to look again at the sport.

Dear Mr Oldfield,

After your despicable actions on Saturday 7th April I felt compelled to write to you to give a different perspective as to why your actions were so abhorrent. This won’t have crossed your mind but did it ever occur to you the long-term lasting damage your actions would have?

The following is from your infamous blog:

“This is a public event, for and by the elites with broader social relations aims. The fact that it happens in the public realm (visible) almost exactly as it has done for the last 158 years also becomes important; the untouched; the unchanged is significant. Most standing alongside the Thames today are in fact the pumped-up though obedient administrators, managers, promoters, politicians and enforcers; functional, strategic and aspirational elites. The transnational-corpo-aristocratic ruling class (invisible) haven’t turned up today and would never consider doing so, despite the best endeavours of Bollinger, Xchange and Hammersmith & Fulham’s mayor.”

Mr. Oldfield, have you ever met any of these Boat Race competitors during their preparations for the contest? Do you have any idea of the discipline, desire, suffering sacrifice and plain hard work that all 18 competitors put in just to arrive on the start line? I feel that I already know the answer to my question after reading the above snippet from your site but apart from your lack of understanding of what you have stumbled into you have caught my attention for another, altogether more complicated reason.

In your mindless ramblings you mention that The Boat Race is held on a course full of elitist landmarks such as St. Paul’s, Fulham Palace and Chiswick House. I noticed that conspicuous by its absence was the Barn Elms Boathouse. Clearly you won’t know where or what this is but this is a Wandsworth Council facility on the banks of the Thames opposite the Fulham Football Ground. I am proud to say I work at Barn Elms and this has driven me to write this letter to you.

My job is to bring rowing to all school children across the borough so they can have a taster of this beautiful sport. We teach children from all backgrounds, both racial and financial, we subsidise those that could not afford to take part in this sport and we make sure that there is opportunity for all. One of the things I also spend a lot of time doing is dispelling the elitist myth that surrounds rowing. Many ill-informed people, such as you, believe the sport to be straight out of the 19th century and not the progressive body that it is today. This notion puts children off having a go in a boat and as a result costs us an untold number of future champions both on the podium and within the sport and community.

By choosing rowing as your vehicle to get your ‘message’ across you are undoing years of hard work by myself and hundreds of my colleagues throughout the country. What you have done is reinforce the thoughts of those without all the facts that rowing is elitist, that it isn’t for them and that they shouldn’t bother. You will have driving a wedge in peoples mind that means next time they pass mine, or another boathouse, rather than pop in to see what it’s all about they will simply remember that you told them all rowers were toffs.

Having watched the re-run of the whole race I can’t begin to describe the rage that built up inside me when I saw you swimming out to meet the boats. Not only because you cheated us out of a great race, not only because your ‘cause’ is no more real than in your head but mostly because you threatened the future of our sport.

I would be more than happy for you to complete a week’s work experience at my boathouse so you can see the hollowness of your argument. I do, regrettably, suspect that you won’t accept my offer, as you will be gleefully reading your column inches whilst slapping yourself on the back at a job well done.

Yours sincerely,
Steven O’Connor

See also:
Angry Hudspith blasts Boat Race swimmer
Video: Training with Oxford ahead of the Boat Race

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