THE annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities was halted for the first time in its 158-year history on Saturday when a swimmer protesting against privilege went close to the competing boats.
The historic event was eventually won by Cambridge but only after the first race was abandoned when the man in a wetsuit was spotted in the River Thames as the two crews hurtled towards him.
The protester’s appearance was one of a number of incidents that hit the contest. After it was restarted, a clash robbed Oxford of an oar, virtually handing the race to Cambridge, and an exhausted crewman was later hospitalised.
The protester is believed to be Trenton Oldfield, an activist who claimed the incident was a deliberate “act of civil disobedience”. A blog post titled “Elitism leads to tyranny” emerged within hours of the race, attributed to Oldfield. In the post, Oldfield said: “I am swimming into the boats in the hope I can stop them from completing the race.” According to reports, Oldfield, from Whitechapel, London, was privately educated and graduated from the London School of Economics in 2008 with an MSc in contemporary urbanism. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. The swimmer made his appearance as the original race neared its conclusion. The Oxford crew was marginally in front when the order went out to stop. Oars narrowly missed the head of Oldfield, who was taken from the water and arrested by police on suspicion of a public order offence.
The swimmer was spotted by Olympic rowing champion Matthew Pinsent, the reserve umpire, who immediately attracted the attention of the principal umpire, who shouted for the teams to stop.
As the two boats approached him, the protester ducked his head under the water then resurfaced with a big smile and was picked up by a police boat. Once on dry land, he was led away, wrapped in a red blanket, while the crowds jeered.
John Garrett, the race umpire, said: “It was totally unbelievable. We are grateful to Matthew for spotting the swimmer. We thought it was some debris, then we realised it was a swimmer. I wasn’t sure if he was going to get out of the way in time, so I just had to stop the race.”
Sergeant Chris Tranter, of the Metropolitan Police, said the crews “almost took his head off”.
After a break of 31 minutes, the race was restarted from the halfway point at Hammersmith Bridge but one of Oxford’s rowers, Hanno Weinhausen, lost half an oar after the crews clashed. That allowed Cambridge to cruise to victory over opponents effectively one man down.