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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 15:41 GMT
How good are the Boat Race crews?
By Martin Gough

As Oxford and Cambridge prepare for their annual match on the Thames, how would they measure up against the best crews in the world?

Cambridge in training
Luke Walton (US)
Sebastian Schulte (Ger)
Tom James (GB)
Bernd Heidicker (Ger)
Robin Bourne-Taylor (GB)
Barney Williams (Can)
Andy Triggs Hodge (GB)
That might be a simple question, but the answer is a bit more complex.

There is a ready answer for anyone trying to gauge the quality of the 2005 race.

Seven oarsmen who competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens are shared between the crews here.

In post-Olympic year many athletes look for a different challenge to keep them fresh and renew their motivation to prepare for the next Games, so these line-ups are stronger than in previous years.

Dan Toploski, the architect of 10 consecutive Oxford wins in the 1970s and '80s went as far as to say both are good enough to make an Olympic final.

Barney Williams
If you took them right now and put them up against Olympic crews, they probably wouldn't make the final
Barney Williams, Oxford's Canadian international
One of the few people better qualified is Canadian Barney Williams, the only Olympic medallist in the race having finished second to Matthew Pinsent's four in Athens.

But he is struggling.

"The more I think about it, the more I realise it's an impossible question to answer," Williams tells BBC Sport.

"We're at a different stage in the season; we're preparing for a different type of race."

Over 500m and 1000m stretches, Oxford are below the last Olympic gold medal pace, which is generally seen as the standard for reaching the next Olympic final.

"We're maybe 98 or 97% of gold medal standard, which is not really up to par," says Williams.

"But if we're able to do that for four-and-a-quarter miles then that's very fast.

"What we can do for 2000m is never known because we're not getting ourselves into that physiological position."

The USA eight won gold in Athens in 5 mins 42.48 secs, whereas the course record between Putney and Mortlake is 16 mins 19 secs.

It is little surprise then that the Blue boats train over longer distances, although perhaps not at the very highest intensity.

Three times further than international course
Bends help alternating crews at different times
Tides and current make steering more important
Difficult conditions with wind and high water
Head-to-head rather than six abreast
No buoys to mark lanes and keep crews apart
Races in March/April rather then summer season
Thousands of spectators, much closer to crews
Single race - no heats and second chances
The Boat Race is less predictable, often in more difficult conditions and sees crews take far more account of their opponents than they would in a six-abreast race.

"If you took these guys and trained them for [2000m racing] there would be a very good chance for them to perform well," says Williams.

"But if you took them right now and put them up against World Championship or Olympic crews, they probably wouldn't make the final because we're not ready for that kind of racing."

Against crews of the highest standard both have done well recently, Cambridge beating a German national eight and Oxford a boat made up of current Great Britain internationals.

But with their racing season not beginning in earnest for another two months, the international crews are nothing like as finely-tuned.

By summer, the students may still be rowing but they rarely stay together as exams kick in.

The Boat Race is the main focus of their season and they are at their best for it.

Measuring Oxford and Cambridge up against anyone else? It's like comparing apples and oranges.

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