It's boat race time...will the light or dark blue prevail? Either way an Oxbridge Blue is the mark of a true sportsman, and the Varsity match the only one that matters.
The Oxbridge blue is much coveted by sporting types. Just try to avoid having proceedings interrupted by a sporting streaker, and your chances of success should be fine. Winning an oxbridge blue was about as good an experience as you can ever have in life, and losing was about as bad a one.” So says triple Cambridge Blue, Dick Tyler, of his two victorious and one inglorious Varsity rugby matches. Dick, a lawyer, won his final Blue in 1980 yet he’s attended every single Varsity match since. “I saw about 20 or so of my team-mates last time,” he tells me, “and you’re straight back to where you were 30 years ago. There’s a very strong connection. We went through hell together for weeks, training six days a week, and playing a first-class fixture list, too. But none of that mattered – only the Varsity match.”
What is it about winning an Oxbridge Blue that takes control over sane men’s hearts? Why is this particular badge of honour recognised the world over? And more to the point, how do you get one? Ask the man on the street what an Oxford Blue is and he would probably say, “a rower”. Oarsmen, after all, grace the sign of most pubs of this name. It was at the second running of the Boat Race, in 1836, that Blues came into being when an Old Etonian decided that his boat should have a “colour” on its bows, so nipped to the haberdasher’s for a strip of pale blue ribbon.
Though the colours concept soon spread to other sports, there are fewer than two dozen sports at Cambridge and 20 at Oxford in which Full Blues are awarded to all Varsity team players. Mostly, these are mainstream sports like rowing, cricket and rugby, though gymnastics, karate and dancesport also qualify for women.
At Cambridge, a division of Discretionary Full Blue sports such as orienteering, rifle-shooting and badminton, allows their captains to award Half and Full Blues with the approval of the Blues Committee. Really off-the-wall pursuits, such as korfball, even ultimate frisbee, are ranked “Half Blue sports”, along with some oddly mainstream ones .
Why, for example, are the lightweight rowers thus classified when they train just as hard as the heavyweights but on half the food? Still, since the Nineties, these sports may also win Extraordinary Full Blues for outstanding achievement, adding mystery to an already complex system.
An absolute condition of being awarded an Oxbridge Blue for men (though not the women where other criteria are used) is representing the top team in the Varsity match – the annual showdown with “the other side”. It’s a day that no Blue ever forgets – particularly the rowers, for the Boat Race has a worldwide audience of around 74 million, with a good 250,000 pitching up to watch from the towpath.”It’s unlike any other race. It really gets to you mentally,” says George Nash, a third year engin-eer and member of last year’s victorious Cambridge crew, who will be rowing again this March. Although he’s not short of elite racing experience (he rowed in the Junior World Championships in 2007), he found that nothing prepares you for the Boat Race. “It’s very intense because of all the people around. The nerves are a real barrier,” he says.
According to George, whose grandfather was a boxing Blue, the way to distinguish a Cambridge Blue rower from a yet-to-be Blue when you watch crews training on the river, is that Blues wear outlandish, light-blue leggings. And does George wear his more than the more practical black ones? “Er – yes.”
Most Blues will admit, with various degrees of sheepishness, how important it is to indulge in the kit available only to them: blazers, bow-ties, scarves – the list goes on. Some get worn to threads over successive Henley Royal Regattas; others don’t reappear after the Varsity team photo.
Some 150 to 250 Full Blues are awarded at each university annually, including some in special circumstances in less mainstream sports. “Our yacht club did exceptionally well last year,” says Enni-Kukka Tuomala, President of Oxford University Sports Federation, “so a whole crew got Blues.”
“Cambridge has recently awarded them to some outstanding fencers,” says Dr John Little, a material scientist from St Catharine’s College and secretary of Cambridge’s Blues Committee. He recalls a remarkable engineering undergraduate, too: “At weekends he raced at Formula 2 and nearly won the championship. So we felt he deserved one.”
Henry Day, a natural scientist at St Catharine’s, holds another Extraordinary Full Blue for long-range target rifle shooting, last year participating in the British Rifle Team. “Representing Britain means more to me than the Blue, but being a Full Blue is a huge honour,” says Henry. “It’s recognised everywhere.” Added to which, there is a host of clubs and societies open only to old Blues, and Henry sits on the committee of Cambridge’s Blues-only Hawks Club. “Cambridge,” Henry points out, “also boasts more shooters than most universities. We’re quite well equipped, partly because of how old we are. Cambridge University Rifle Association is older than the Varsity match.” Dr Little’s job is to have a longer memory than most student captains, thus offering a broader perspective when young clubs prematurely demand Half Blue status: some Gaelic footballers were politely rebuffed for being insufficiently established.
While all Blues agree that the award marks one of the proudest moments of their lives and, for most, the apex of their sporting achievements, there is also quiet acknow-ledgment that it carries cachet for life: “That people have organised themselves to get through exams and play sport to a high level says something about them,” says Dick Tyler. Double Blue Andy Jennings also acknowledges that “Almost everyone who has won a Blue will put it on their CV.” His Blues (for playing in the Varsity football match at Craven Cottage in 1997 and 1999) may have been especially useful, given that he is now a geography teacher and coach of the Association (First XI football team) at Eton.
“It does help open a few doors initially, since, especially in a school like this, a vast proportion of what we do is out on the games field,” says Jennings. His Blues are also unusual in that he won one at both Oxford and Cambridge, when he “swapped sides” to take on a post-grad PGCE teaching qualification. “I did get a few Judas chants from the stands,” he laughs, “but it was all quite tongue in cheek.”
Sarah Winckless is remarkable for having so many Blues she’s actually lost count. She represented Cambridge in the discus, hammer, netball, rowing and basketball (among other things) and subsequently became a double world champion and Olympic bronze medal winning rower.
Though only Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University has been brazen enough to poach the Blue epithet, other uni-versities in the British Isles offer recognition in other hues, while most give out unspecified “colours”. Durham awards “Palatinates”, Bristol “Bristol Reds”, Manchester “Maroons”, and Trinity College Dublin “Pinks”. But since none has a Varsity match equivalent, they are awarded more haphazardly, even stringently. At Durham, I won nothing for rowing for the university women’s eight, though, bizarrely, earned a Half Palatinate for rather less exhausting endeavours with the riding club. Durham contemporary James Acheson-Gray concurs: “Even the year we won the tennis university championships, not every team member got a full Palatinate,” although James collected two eventually. “This was probably helped by the fact I was on the committee that awarded them,” he laughs modestly.
But none of the above has one tenth the clout of a Blue as no one’s heard of them. So why is the Oxbridge Blue internationally recognised, and why does the Boat Race enjoy an audience of millions? History is a big part of it. “The Varsity match is the longest-standing fixture between two rugby clubs in history,” points out Dick Tyler. Perhaps we find brawn coupled with brains utterly seductive, or perhaps it’s the fact that the outcome of months of training is decided not through knockouts or heats but in one death-or-glory showdown, where defeat reduces grown men to tears.
This is, I suspect, part of the Blues’ mystique. There are no bronze medals or vestiges of consolation to be found in making the quarter finals in a Varsity match. It’s all or nothing. “It’s also unique,” says Sarah Winckless. “All that history, and the gladiatorial battle of a Varsity contest.” Though we’re a nation that loves losers (think Eddie the Eagle and Tim Henman), we still celebrate the excellence represented by a Blue. Or perhaps we can’t help thinking when we spot a Blue blazer, tie and scarf, “Did they win, or did they cry?”
OXBRIDGE BLUES IN NUMBERS
1836 The year in which Blues first came into being
200 to 250 The number of Blues awarded at both Oxford
and Cambridge each year
£189 The cost of an Oxford Full Blue Blazer today
74 million The worldwide audience of the Boat Race
3 Number of British universities that award Blues
20 The number of Full Blue sports in Oxford
139 Olympic medallists went to Oxford
11 The Boat Race this year will be held on 11 April