University challenge: why the Boat Race is still drawing the crowds

Cambridge and Oxford University Blues will go head to head in their annual Boat Race on 23 March

* The Boat Race will be held on 24 March

Sunday 7 April will see teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities once again go head to head in a dramatic and deeply competitive four-mile race along the river Thames. Love or loathe it, the Boat Race has been a key event in the British sporting calendar since it was first established in 1829, drawing crowds that seem to get bigger every year.

This is perhaps in part due to its incredible heritage – the race has been held every year since its inception, barring the two World Wars – and despite upgrades in equipment and technology, the rules remain mostly unchanged since the first gentlemen rower, Cambridge's Charles Merivale, challenged his Oxford-student friend Charles Wordsworth – by which we mean there are very few rules whatsoever.

Famous alumni to have taken part include actor Hugh Laurie, photographer Lord Snowdon, and rowing greats including Olympian Tim Foster and three-time Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent, but success in the races is something quite unique in the world of rowing. Unlike Olympic courses, which are held on straight and still waters, the Thames course is winding and full of strong currents where it stretches between Putney and Mortlake.

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To date, Cambridge has won the race 83 times in comparison to Oxford's 80 wins – with only one highly controversial tie in 1877. The women's race was introduced in 1927, with Cambridge leading 43 wins to Oxford's 30. The record times for the men's race is 16 minutes 19 seconds, set by Cambridge in 1998, and 18 minutes 33 seconds for the women's, set by Cambridge in 2017.

The friendly but deeply ingrained rivalry between the two prestigious universities has borne fruit to an eccentric sporting event that is still beloved by crowds throughout the UK – almost 250,000 people tuned into the race on TV in 2015.

Perhaps part of the drama is the very real risk of disaster. There have been seven sinkings – most recently when a boat sprung a severe leak in the 2016 women's race – broken oars, collapsed rowers, and two mutinies by the Oxford crew against their president. This year, the Boat Race is held in association with Cancer Research UK. The Women's Race will begin at 2.13pm and the Men's Race begins at 3.10pm.

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