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The rivalry between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge dates back to a time when they were the only two universities in the United Kingdom. Collectively known as ‘Oxbridge’, they have many similarities, perhaps giving rise to a natural competitiveness between them. Here we explore their famous sporting competitions and traditions, from ‘Varsity’ matches to ‘Blues’.  

The most renowned of the Oxbridge sporting competitions is The Boat Race. Dating back to 1829, this rowing contest has taken place annually with the notable exceptions of the First and Second World Wars. Taking place on the River Thames, The Boat Race sees thousands of spectators line the banks of the West London course, to cheer on the crews as the boats pass by. The race is also shown live on television to over 400 million viewers worldwide.

Over the years there have been disruptions, sinkings and even mutinies. In 2012, the race had to be stopped for 30 minutes when a protester was spotted in the water, ahead of the oncoming boats. The crews have sunk on no less than eight occasions to date, with both sinking in the 1912 race due to bad weather. There have also been many collisions and broken oars, usually as a result of the proximity of the two racing boats, but in 1984 the Cambridge boat crashed into a barge shortly before the race. On only one occasion has there been a dead heat, when the 1877 Race Umpire fell asleep and was unable to declare a winner. Oxford purportedly finished the race first, complete with one broken oar.

Famous participants have included both four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Matthew Pinsent (St Catherine’s College, Oxford), actor Hugh Laurie (Selwyn College, Cambridge) and TV presenter Dan Snow (Balliol College, Oxford).

Another major sporting rivalry is played out on the rugby pitch. ‘The Varsity Match’ is a rugby union match played at Twickenham, home to England’s international rugby team. The word ‘Varsity’ means an annual match which takes please between two traditionally opposing teams, and this particular competition has been running for over 140 years. The Varsity Match sees such a high standard of rugby that many of the players, such as England Fly Half Rob Andrew (St John’s College, Cambridge), have also competed at international level.

Varsity matches take place across many of the university sports and collectively contribute to the coveted Varsity Games title. Those who compete in Varsity matches or distinguish themselves in other sporting competition, may be awarded a ‘Full Blue’ or ‘Half Blue’. This honour is the highest level of recognition in Oxbridge sport. Such is the prestige of winning a blue, that each university has its own social club and blazer design exclusively for these talented men and women. These clubs are Hawks’ Club (Men) and The Ospreys (Women), Cambridge, and Vincent’s Club (Men) and Atalanta’s (Women), Oxford.

Rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge remains fierce, taking their athletes to new heights each year and upholding the traditions of the two universities, ensuring the legacy competitive spirit endures today.


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