Oxford and Cambridge are two of the oldest universities in England, though I have half a feeling that there may be older ones in Scotland. By happy accident, tradition and funding they remain two of the most prominent in the country, indeed arguably in the world. As usual - but not quite as ever), they have been rated the two best universities in the country - with Oxford being #1 to Cambridge's #2 for a change. The tradition is that Oxford is regarded as better for arts and Cambridge as better for sciences, though I do note that there are subjects where other UK universities are rated higher than either Oxford or Cambridge.
Oxford and Cambridge have a very prominent sporting rivalry with each other. While there is competition between the two in a couple of dozen sports, there are two particularly prominent sporting fixtures between the two universities: rugby (technically rugby union) and rowing, the latter of which is known fairly generally as The Boat Race.
The Boat Race is a 4¼ mile between a coxed eight from each university around a faintly W-shaped course, with a gentle clockwise bend at each end surrounding a large anti-clockwise bend in the middle that makes for a fairly balanced race whether you start at one "station" (side of the river) or the other.
The race has been run on 149 occasions, from 1829 to the present day; today's win for Oxford brings the overall tally to Cambridge 77 Oxford 71, with 1877's race a dead heat (tie). A typical winning margin will be three boatlengths; one crew will display superiority over the other sooner or later and pull directly ahead in front of the opponent. From there it's effectively impossible to make a comeback and the race result is settled. However, while the two crews are racing at all side-by-side, the spectacle is competitive.
Last year's race was regarded as one of the most exciting for years, largely because Oxford were trailing as the race went under its final bridge about three minutes from the end but managed to overtake Cambridge and win. This was apparently the first time this had happened in a hundred years or thereabouts.
This year's race was even more exciting; it was so evenly balanced that it actually had overtaking. Oxford got off to the better start of the two, though apparently less well than they should have done, and took a slight lead - about the size that might be expected between two crews rowing identically caused by the natural curvature of the course. Then Cambridge overtook Oxford by a similar amount and Oxford overtook Cambridge again. The final winning margin was estimated to be one foot - one foot in a ~22,440 foot race, which I suppose is akin to winning a 100m race by about four and a half millimetres.
Cambridge made fewer mistakes than Oxford, but Oxford's crew were just better at rowing quickly. There were a few other reasons why this race was particularly unusual: one of Cambridge's crew broke his wrist just a day or two beforehand, causing a replacement from the reserve boat. (As a result, this year's event featured two pairs of brothers, each pair split between the two boats - a first.) Another unusual factor is that Oxford's crew were on average a stone (14 pounds) lighter per man than the Cambridge crew. Oxford overcoming such a mass discrepancy was another first in the proceedings.
The Boat Race is just another sporting event at heart, but one with remarkable history. It is still watched by six million people every year in this country - people usually declare themselves to be either Cambridge or Oxford depending on whether they prefer Cambridge's shade of light blue or Oxford's shade of dark blue - and somebody has plucked a figure of half a billion out of the air for a global television audience. (I can believe this; it's likely very popular in the more pretentious parts of India, for instance.) It also might give me an excuse to get back in touch with some friends I had at Cambridge whom I hadn't been in contact with for some time.
Today's Formula One race was extremely entertaining, largely because many parts of the track were extremely wet. I won't spoil the result not least because I anticipate challenges to it caused by the controversial early conclusion; the commentators on ITV interpreted the regulations which applied differently to the race officials. Formula One has always been prone to announcing a result one way on the day and then changing it about a week later, once every few years, so I wouldn't be surprised if this were a case in point. Nevertheless, if you get the chance to see Formula One coverage, this race is rather more worthy of your time than most.
Formula One coverage question: the format seems to have got rid of the traditional electric guitar riff at the start of the race (you know the one, it sort of goes "whop whirr, nee-na NEE-na, nee-na nee-na, nee-na-nee") with all the letters flying to make up the logo and replaced it with something new and non-descript featuring coloured lines going around in a circle. What's all that about, then? (Is the classic riff still available online somewhere?)
That said, I didn't see all the race, largely because it clashed with the premiere of Full Metal Challenge on Channel 4, which had been very popular with a few people on my Friends list. Have to say that I wasn't as taken with it as you folks seemed to be, but this is because we have enjoyed fairly big-budget productions of Robot Wars, Scrapheap Challenge (Junkyard Wars) and the like for years. five's spoiler "Combat Cars" a few months ago also took some of FMC's steam away as well.
The highlight of the race though was a particular two-minute TV advert in one of the breaks, though, in which a Heath-Robinson-esque contraption of internal car parts shuffles along like tumbling dominoes, apparently as if one long continuous shot. I'm not the only person to rate this advert highly as the URL to see the advert online has been doing the rounds on mailing lists already. Get your dose of pretty advertainment while it's still hot.
Oh, and another happy birthday greeting to ericklendl, just because he's worth it. :-)