Last Saturday’s University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge was without doubt the most bizarre and controversial event in the competition’s 158-year history. First, the race had to be stopped when a man was spotted swimming dangerously close to the two boats. Shortly after the race was restarted, Oxford lost an oar after apparently clashing with the Cambridge boat. At the end of the race, Oxford rower Alexander Woods, 27, collapsed and had to be lifted from the boat by medical staff. Woods was admitted to hospital and was discharged on Sunday. Despite being favourites to win, Oxford finished the race in second place and Cambridge took victory following the extraordinary series of events.
The mystery swimmer was identified as Trenton Oldfield, a 35-year-old anti-elitism activist from Whitechapel, East London. Oldfield described his actions as “an act of civil disobedience”, which he hoped would stop the boats from completing the race. The competitors still managed to finish the race, but umpire John Garrett was forced to call a temporary halt when it became clear that Oldfield had no intention of moving out of the way of the boats and therefore presented a serious threat to his own safety, as well as that of the rowers. Oldfield was dragged out of the water by officials and was later charged by police under the Public Order Act.
…how fragile our rights and freedoms actually are.
Within hours of the race, a manifesto attributed to Oldfield appeared online with the heading “Entitled Elitism Leads to Tyranny”. In his manifesto, Oldfield said he was targeting the boat race because of its elitist nature and was employing guerrilla tactics to do so. He urged others to commit similar acts and said recent crackdowns on organised protest suggested it might be time to employ civil disobedience and surprise tactics to “undermine the system”. He argued that these actions were necessary to fight against what he perceived to be a process of enslavement of the masses in the UK and around the world, evident in such steps as the removal of civil rights; the cuts to public services such as health and education; the entangled corrupt relationship between the media, police and politicians; the forced labour in supermarkets; and the reductions of tax burdens for the richest.
Oldfield has been widely mocked on the Internet and has been branded an idiot by many, including British Olympic Association chairman, Colin Moynihan, who has admitted that Olympic events could be disrupted in a similar manner. As a privately educated graduate who studied at London School of Economics, Oldfield has also been criticised for being part of the elite that he so despises. But in light of recent controversies, his actions seem justified to some. The ongoing debate over prisoners being held for long periods without trial or the latest plans for our Internet usage to be tracked for security purposes, demonstrate just how fragile our rights and freedoms actually are. Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court ruled that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jail, despite this being illegal in ten US states and banned by international human rights treaties. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we respect and recognise an individual’s right to protest and do not take our freedom for granted.
…effort and dedication that goes into training for such an event.
However, Oldfield’s decision to target his protest towards the Boat Race has lost him sympathy with many who might otherwise have supported his cause. Many ordinary people who do not come from elite backgrounds enjoy the races and many athletes across the country recognise the extreme amount of effort and dedication that goes into training for such an event. Karl Hudspith, president of the Oxford University Boat Club, posted on Twitter: “To Trenton Oldfiled [sic]; my team went through seven months of hell, this was the culmination of our careers and you took it from us.”