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Britain - sport

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race 

It's one of the oldest sporting events in the world, millions watch it live or on TV, and it's still raced by amateurs.

Oxford-Cambridge boat raceThe team from Oxford University, the "dark blues".

Almost two hundred years after it first took place, the "Boat race" between teams from Oxford and Cambridge universities is still one of the big events in the annual sporting calendar in the United Kingdom.

One Saturday in spring, about a quarter of a million people line the banks of the river Thames, in the west of London, to watch a boat race involving eighteen stu­dents. Up to 400 million other people in 160 countries across the world watch the race on television. In re­cent years, the Oxford and Cam­bridge boat race has been called (sadly) "the world's last great truly amateur top-level sporting event."
    It is also one of the oldest annual sporting events in the world, and by far the most famous of the dozens of different sporting events in which students from Britain's two oldest universities test their strength against each other. The race has taken place over a hundred and sixty times since it was first rowed in the year 1829. Since 1927 there has also been a second boat race, for women.
    It was in 1829 that two friends, Charles Merival, who was a student at Cambridge, and Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet) who was at Oxford, ar­gued about which university had the best oarsmen. The only way to settle the ar­gument, they decided, would be to organ­ise a competition between teams from the two uni­versities.
    In those days, organising a sporting competition between teams from towns that were 100 miles apart by road, was not easy; nev­ertheless Cambridge university sent a challenge to Oxford, and the teams from the two universities agreed to com­pete on the river Thames at the small town of Hen­ley, between Oxford and London.
    The first race took place on June 10th 1836, and proved such a popular event that the people of Henley decided to organise a boating regatta on the river ev­ery year; this has since become known as the Henley Royal Regatta, and is the world's most famous rowing competition. As for the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, the two universities resolved to re­peat the event the following year in Lon­don, which was considered to be a more neutral location, being equidistant from the two universi­ties.
    From 1839 onwards, the race has taken place every year except for breaks during the wars; initially rowed in the mid­dle of Lon­don, the race was moved six miles upstream in the year 1845, on account of the very heavy river traffic that was liable to obstruct the racers in the middle of the capital. A new starting point was desig­nated at the Star and Garter inn at Putney, then a village, and the new finishing line was established at the village of Mortlake, 4 miles downstream.
    In those days, there were no na­tional or international standards by which to determine the length of a rowing race; but at almost four and a quarter miles, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race is long by today's standards – three times as long as any Olympic or international rowing race for "eights".
    Unlike many of today's sup­posedly "amateur" sports, where many of the com­petitors are pro­fessionals in all but name, the Boat Race really does involve real am­ateurs who, as well as training in­tensely for this top-level sporting event, are also full-time students at the universities of Oxford or Cam­bridge. As Britain's top universities, Oxford and Cambridge have high aca­demic standards, and all stu­dents have to work hard to pass their exams; and while a few of the competitors in the annual Boat Race may go on to pursue a pro­fessional career in sport, the ma­jority of them row just for pleasure, and after univer­sity will go into jobs like any other gradu­ates.
    Combining hard work and university studies leaves students with little time to do anything more than row and study dur­ing the six months of training that precede each race. Each day begins at 6.30 a.m. with an hour and a half's training in the gym, followed by breakfast at 8 and a morning of lectures, tutorials or work in labo­ratories and libraries. By 1.30, the stu­dents are ready for the minibus which will take them for their after­noon rowing ses­sion on the river – the Thames for stu­dents at Ox­ford, the Ouse for those at Cam­bridge. Afternoon training lasts for two and a half hours, after which it is back to the University to work again for the rest of the day.
    When the starter's pistol is fired on the race day, the eight rowers and the cox in each boat hope desperately that the months of intense effort will lead them to victory. Of course, they know at heart that whether they win or lose, it will really have been worthwhile. In sport, and no­tably in amateur sport, they all know that it is more important to participate than to win, and that the moment of competi­tion, even for the losers, will justify their months of effort and sacrifice, however great the joy of victory or the sorrow of defeat may be.

son of a sister or brother - oarsmen: rowers, people who row a boat - to settle: to find the answer to - a chal­lenge: an invitation to compete - resolved: decided - lo­cation: place - inn: pub, tavern - up­stream: towards the source of a river, against the current - eights: boats with eight rowers plus one "cox" - graduates: people with a university diploma - lectures: classes - worthwhile: worth the effort -

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Student worksheet

The Oxford and Cambridge boat race

Interactive exercises:

Question forming

Here are six answers: write the questions, using the prompts when indicated. Each of your questions must have at least eight words.

    1. When   
    In the year 1829.

   2. How   
     A hundred miles by road.

     Because it was considered to be more neutral.

   4 .    
   To avoid the heavy river traffic.

   5. How far .    
    About 4 miles.

    6. When do
    At 6.30.

Missing words: replace the missing words in this extract from the article

    The first race took on June 10th 1836, and proved a popular event the people of Henley decided to organise a boating regatta on the river year; this has become known as the Henley Royal Regatta, and is the world's famous rowing competition. As the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, the two universities resolved to re­peat the event the  year in Lon­don, which was considered to be aneutral location, equidistant the two universi­ties.
    From 1839  the race has taken  year except breaks the wars; initially in the mid­dle of Lon­don, the race was moved six miles  in the year 1845, on of the very heavy river traffic that was to obstruct the racers in the middle of the capital

Creative writing

Letter writing. Students should imagine that they are a member of either the Oxford or the Cambridge team. It is a week before the race. They should write a letter to their parents or brother or sister.  The letter must be at least 200 words, and must include the following words, in this order:

  excited  -  against  -  Putney - exhausted - lectures  -  tired -  win  -  disappointed

Teachers section : 


The diphthong [ei] (in standard British pronunciation). Note the pronunciation of the name Cambridge ['keimbridʒ], not ['kæmbridʒ]; also of the name Thames, which is [temz], not [teimz].  What other words can students find in the text that use the [ei] diphthong?  There are not a lot; here are those that appear in the first half of the text: race, eighteen, great, place, famous, location, designated, Mortlake.
  The word against may also be included, though this is a word with two acceptable pronunciations, [ageinst] or [agenst]
For more on the phonetics of standard English, see A short guide to English phonetics

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Readability: advanced
Flesch-Kincaid levels:
Grade level:  14.8 Difficult  
Reading ease level:  51.5
CEF level: C1
IELTS Level  6.5-8

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