Friday, April 11, 2014

BOAT RACE DINNER: NYC 2014 (81st Annual)

81st Annual Dinner, April 10, 2014
Photos of the Dinner appear here:


Dr. Seth Lesser, Magdalen College, Oxford and Cox of the Blue Boat, 1984 and 1985

Dr. Seth R. Lesser
Welcome to the 81st New York Dinner celebrating the 160th Boat Race. Of the races since 1829, the tally is 81 wins for Cambridge and 78 wins for Oxford, with one dead heat (in 1877).

This year, on a rainy, misty Sunday, Oxford won the race – sunshine for Oxford – but it was due to a clash of oars. A bit of too-aggressive steering by Cambridge led to the oar of the Cambridge two man (the person one seat in from the bow) tipping the oar of the Oxford seven man. That caused him to catch a crab and miss a few strokes. The Cambridge boat stopped dead in the water and you cannot stop like that and expect to ever be competitive. For the oarsman, after so many months of training, that makes for a hard day.

While that is the report on this Boat Race, one for the record books, what I would like to take a few minutes to share with you are two extraordinary things and one wonderful thing. I hope that in a few minutes you will agree that I am not engaging in hyperbole.

The first extraordinary thing is that – I believe – it is fair to say that the Boat Race is one of the world's greatest athletic contests. And I say athletic in the sense of the physical effort expended by the sportsman in the contest. You may not know that rowing is one of the top athletic sports, based on the most commonly measured criteria of physiological ability.
  • VO2 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen muscles consumed per minute. In the top rank of athletes, the VO2 max of elite athletes is 6-7 liters/min. The highest VO2 Max is found in running (particularly, middle distance), cross-country skiing, speed skating (distance), and, not surprisingly here, rowing. In rowing, the athletes on the national teams almost all rate at 6+ liters per minute and many are at, or at least approach, 7 liters. By comparison, most professional sports figures in sports such as football (British or American), tennis, or basketball only come in at 4-5.  Most of us, when exercising, would probably be around 2-3 liters. Working that hard – pulling that hard on an oar – builds up lactic acid, the searing in the legs that we all have at one point or other felt. 
  • Lactic Acid is another measure. In a 2000-meter race, which is the distance for international rowing, as well as collegiate rowing, the lactic acid tests lead to many rowers referring to the race as a “tunnel of pain.” The lactic acid levels will peak at about 20 millimoles per 100 ml of blood. That’s a “painfest.” “When you get to 20, you are in never-never land,” explains Fritz Hagerman, the eminent exercise physiologist at Ohio University who started the first U.S. Olympic performance lab in 1977, “You wish you were dead, and you are afraid you won’t be.” (Bill Saporito, “Who is the Fittest Olympic Athlete of Them All?”, Time, July 19, 2012.) 
Many years ago, I met Fritz Hagerman at the United States National Camp – the selection camp for the national team rowers – which was that year held in Madison, Wisconsin. He was infectiously excited about testing the rowers and I asked him why he was so high-spirited. His answer was that he saw the very finest athletes in the world but the ones that impressed him the most were the rowers because they – unlike any of the others sports where 6-7 liters of oxygen were used – did not compete individually but in a boat where they have to row in unison, together with others. In other words, unlike cross-country skiers or runners or skaters, the rowing effort must be accompanied by a kind of grace and delicacy to be effective. This is the only sport where such effort is accompanied by such a requirement of maintaining control.

Here is the first extraordinary thing about the Boat Race: Everything I have been discussing about rowing primarily applies to 2000-meter races. The Boat Race, however, is just under 7000 meters and it is rowing the same intensity and by athletes that are superbly fit and prepared with the same intensity as they would row a 2000-meter race - the pace is as high and hard as an international race, starting at 45-46 strokes per minute and settling close to what would be a 2000-meter pace.   It is one of the world’s most grueling pure athletic contests.

Sir Matthew Pinsent, a ten-time world rowing gold medalist, an Olympic gold medalist in four straight Olympics – and a three-time Blue Boater – was once measured as having the largest recorded lung capacity of any sportsmen at time (now topped by another Boat Race Blue, Pete Reed). So don’t take it from me – since I coxed, I’ve just been pulled over the Boat Race course; take it from Sir Matthew himself:
Almost any activity done hard enough will produce lactate but, in rowing, how much you produce and how you cope with it is a big part of the difference between first and second place - or in Boat Race terms, between winning and having wasted six months of your life. For a Boat Race crew, the lactate kicks in after about a minute and stays there scalding and tearing at your muscles and mind for another 18 or so minutes. The only way to relieve the pain is to stop, and that's just not going to happen.
In sum, the Boat Race is not just one of the most demanding sporting events there is - I believe it is one of the most physiologically demanding. That’s the first extraordinary thing.

The second extraordinary thing is that these athletes are scholars. Maybe at some time in the past, rowers were accepted to aid the Blue Boat, but those days are unequivocally (at least at Oxford, about which I know) gone. The University demands that the rowers face the same entrance standards as anyone else. That is no less extraordinary.

The wonderful item I have for you is that, at least in part through the perseverance of BNY Mellon and its Newton division, next year, for the 161st Boat Race, in addition to the Oxford University Boat Club competing against the Cambridge University Boat Club, so too will the Oxford University Woman’s Boat Club be competing against the Cambridge counterpart over the same course of the Tideway on the same day as the men. For one and all, I hope we can all agree that this is a most wonderful thing. Thank you.


Dame Barbara Stocking, President
Murray Edwards College, Cambridge
Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Prior to becoming the President of Murray Edwards, Dame Barbara headed Oxfam Great Britain, which operates in more than 60 countries to act against the causes of poverty.

She oversaw expenditures of more than £300 million and a paid staff of 4,500 based all over the world, reinforced by many volunteers.


The Response from the Universities was given by the Chancellor of Oxford University, the Rt Hon the Lord Patten of Barnes.

Introduction of Lord Patten

Marlin (L) and
Lord Patten
Dr. John Tepper Marlin, Trinity, Oxford

At the Oxford European Alumni Reunion in Madrid last year, Lord Patten told me proudly that he, like Dame Barbara, was the first in his family to go to university. His father Frank was a jazz drummer.

Patten won a scholarship to Balliol. He studied Modern History, and since he went down he has helped make history.

Lord Patten at Oxford European
Reunion in Madrid
Lord Patten has a special relationship with New York City. Right after graduating he came to the United States on a Coolidge Traveling Scholarship, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, whose 50th anniversary President Obama celebrated today at the LBJ Library. Patten traveled by car in the American South in the summer of 1965, as Martin Luther King led the march on Montgomery to ensure passage of the Voting Rights Act. Lord Patten told me that as soon they reached Alabama, he could tell that his car’s Pennsylvania plates were attracting local suspicion and hostility.

Next, Patten worked for John Lindsay’s campaign for Mayor of New York. He was assigned to follow challenger William Buckley. Although defeated, Buckley’s campaign found a foothold and has since been described as the cradle of Reagan’s campaign for President.

Lord Patten of Barnes,
Chancellor of Oxford University
These experiences must have been valuable as Patten started work at the Conservative Party in London. Within a decade of graduation, he became the Party’s director of research. Patten left to run for office, was elected a Member of Parliament, and became Secretary of State for the Environment. He became Chairman of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and John Major and is credited with winning the fourth consecutive Conservative victory in 1992.

He then became famously the last British Governor of Hong Kong, in 1992-1997, and then a European Commissioner. Besides being Chancellor of Oxford University since 2003, he has since 2011 also been Chairman of the BBC Trust. He has been married since 1971 to Lavender Thornton, who is here with us today.

Please give a warm welcome to Lord and Lady Patten.

Oxford men's crew pops the corks as it wins by the biggest margin since 1973.
Oxford Women’s Crew wins by 4 lengths - Oxford Men’s Crew by 11 Lengths, its biggest win since 1973.

The Guardian story.

Official BNY Mellon sponsor site gives equal billing to women’s race, which has for years been sponsored by the Newton division of BNY Mellon.

BBC Story (but no video in USA - bummer).

Please join Oxford & Cambridge alumni and friends at the

81st Annual Dinner to kick off the 2014 North American

Alumni Weekend!


Thursday, April 10, 2014  
6:30 pm Cocktails for 7:30 pm Dinner

Dress code: Black tie or boat club blazer

Early Bird rates are available until February 14, 2014:
$150.00 Young Alumni (7 years out, matric 2007-2014) 
$200.00 Standard (matric before 2007)

  Regular rates starting February 15, 2014:
$175.00 Young Alumni (7 years out, matric 2007-2014)
$225.00 Standard  (matric before 2007)

Click here to register now.

More details and speakers to be announced soon. 
For college table sponsorships, see event registration.

Other Oxford-Cambridge Events in USA, 2014

March 29, 2014 - A Gathering of Cantabrigians, Cam Day NYC  
April 4, 2014 - Boat Race Dinner, Chicago IL
April 9, 2014 - Boat Race Party, at the Alta Club, Salt Lake City, UT
April 10, 2014 - Boat Race Dinner NYC, at the University Club, with special guests Dame Barbara Stocking, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge and Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of Oxford University
April 13, 2014 - Boat Race Brunch at Jimmy O's in Del Mar, CA
April 16, 2014 - Cambridge in America's LIVE Book Club Meeting NYC, The Orphan Train
April 17, 2014 - Boat Race Dinner at the University Club, Denver, CO
April 22, 2014 - Boat Race Dinner, San Francisco, CA

Details here.  

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