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Page last updated at 07:27 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Students v Supermen

By Martin Gough

Cambridge students face Olympic stars

The University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is one of the biggest rowing events in the world but does it feature the best rowers?

Fans and critics ask the question every year but rarely get a chance to answer it. This year we got the best chance yet to make a comparison.

Cambridge - a crew made up mainly of young students - took on a crew featuring the best rowers in the world, dubbed the "Great Eight", as part of their preparations for the Boat Race on 29 March.

Five of the six single scullers who featured in the Olympic final last August were joined by three other top international oarsmen to make an amazing line-up, with Norwegian Olympic singles champion Olaf Tufte the star.

Maeyens, Vonarburg, Campbell, Hacker, Drysdale, Tufte, Synek, Cop, cox: Williams

Bow - Tim Maeyens (BEL; fourth in 2008 Olympic final)
2 - Andre Vonarburg (SWI; ninth overall in Beijing)
3 - Alan Campbell (GB; fifth in 2008 Olympic Final)
4 - Marcel Hacker (GER; bronze, Sydney 2000; seventh overall in Beijing)
5 - Mahe Drysdale (NZ; bronze, Beijing 2008; three times world champion)
6 - Olaf Tufte (NOR; Olympic champion 2008, 2004)
7 - Ondrej Synek (CZE; silver, Beijing 2008)
Stroke - Iztok Cop (SLO; gold in double scull, Sydney 2000; silver in double scull, Athens 2004)
Cox - Alison Williams (GB)

The odds were stacked in Cambridge's favour, though. They have been training together since September, with their crew line-up fixed for the last months.

Alan Campbell
They're going for the Boat Race and we're building for the World Championships in August

Alan Campbell
GB single sculler

The Great Eight flew into the UK three days before this fixture so only had five sessions together.

"They're at a very different level of fitness," explained British representative Alan Campbell, whose club, Tideway Scullers in west London, hosted the eight for a week of training.

"They're going for the Boat Race and we're building for the World Championships in August."

All eight are scullers, meaning they normally use two blades, rather than sweep rowers, who use one. And they're used to rowing alone rather than in a crew.

The Boat Race course on the River Thames is three and a half times longer than the international standard 2,000m, still-water lake.

For this match, the crews stuck to a 2.5km stretch from Putney to Hammersmith so the effects were less, but they still had to deal with the more complex tactics that come with a tidal stream and bends.

Henry Pelly
I think they were slightly stung, being beaten by a bunch of students

Henry Pelly
Cambridge president

Campbell explained: "On the Thames, there is a very narrow channel, in some places just six feet wide. In international competition it's 2km and you go straight - this is quite different."

The fight for the channel was at its most fierce in the middle of the first race, when the crews clashed blades.

But by then Cambridge had taken a lead that they would not relinquish, courtesy of the sort of well-drilled start that comes from time spent in a crew together.

Race one went to the Light Blues, by two third of a length, but the Great Eight - were suitably chastened.

"I think they were slightly stung, being beaten by a bunch of students but in the second one they came at us," said Cambridge president Henry Pelly.

Olaf Tufte
If you'd given our boat a couple of months, we'd definitely be the best in the world

Olaf Tufte
Olympic singles champion

Cambridge took a slight lead at the start of race two but the Olympians found their rhythm this time and fought back with two ferocious pushes to reverse the margin second time around.

Afterwards, the towering Tufte was pleased enough with the performance, saying: "I didn't expect to crush anyone.

"They've been together for six months, they're well-organised and they're timing is good.

"If you'd given our boat a couple of months, we'd definitely be the best [in the world] but rowing in an eight is about much more than power."

Campbell admitted: "If we'd raced an international boat today we would have been sorely beaten.

"Oxford will have a lot more experience [than Cambridge] but if Cambridge can hold their heads and get a start like that first one, they could hold onto it."


Pelly and the Light Blue students were pleased enough at having given the supermen a shock but their eyes are firmly set on racing Oxford, whose own crew this year contains five Olympians.

"That's where we expected to be," he said simply. "You have to expect to be at that level to win the Boat Race."

see also
All-star crew beat GB Olympians
22 Mar 09 |  Olympics
Oxford weigh in as heaviest ever
19 Mar 09 |  Other sport...
Tufte takes second Olympic gold
16 Aug 08 |  Rowing
Campbell fifth in Olympic final
16 Aug 08 |  Beijing 2008

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