As I sat on the banks of the river at Henley Royal Regatta, I couldn’t help but feel extremely aware of my privilege. I have been rowing since I was in high school. I went to a Welsh-speaking state school in South Wales, and I joined a small local rowing club in my early teens for some fun. While I have competed in country wide competitions and attended a training camp near Henley, I had never attended the world-renowned occasion itself. Together with friends from my college boat club, all dressed up in our expensive blazers and formal attire, I entered the steward’s enclosure, feeling very honoured to have received the opportunity to attend the prestigious event. I understood that the mingling and the socialising was all a part of the Henley experience, so I adhered to the dress code and participated in the social pleasantries of the regatta. But what I really wanted to do was to watch the racing. As a rower, I could feel what they felt. The excitement upon hearing the crowds roar, the pain as they crossed the finish line. Seeing the athletes doing what they do best up close was what excited me the most.

However, watching these elite rowers from the banks of the river, I realised that when people refer to rowing as “elite”, it refers not just to the physical prowess of the athletes, but also, in many respects, to the standing of the sport as a whole. The idea that the culture of rowing is one of privilege and elitism has long been a source of contention within the rowing community and wider society. Of course, rowers themselves will tell you that there is much more an atmosphere of camaraderie and sportsmanship than one of exclusivity. I myself have thought this way for the five years that I have been rowing. I have only seen the sport through the eyes of an athlete. The satisfaction of each stroke in the water, the feeling of pushing yourself until the end of a race, and the joy of training and laughing alongside those who share your passion. I have tried many sports, and to me the same sense of athleticism and community is shared amongst them. I have always asked myself: why is the attitude surrounding rowing so different to that of other sports? When I tell people I row, the assumption is that I learnt to row in a private school, or that I come from a wealthy family who own their own boats. This is the general image that people seem to have about rowers. Of course, there is evidence to support this assumption, as out of the 117 school clubs registered with British Rowing, only 20 are state schools. However, personally, I never felt that the image I had of rowing fitted into this one of exclusivity and prestige. It never really clicked, but as I sat at the bank of the enclosure, £13 Pimms in hand, I saw, firsthand, what others may have been seeing all along. Here I was unaware of the fact that my rowing had anything to do with elitism and that I simply loved the sport for what it was, but to separate it from privilege and elitism would be a naïve act.

“I am both grateful and uncomfortable to be a part of this sport that gave me a sense of community when I needed it the most”

The problem grows beyond the elitism within the sport itself and to the elitism surrounding the social standing of a sport. While I can enjoy rowing as an athlete, it is inextricably intertwined with matters of class and privilege. Rowing is an exclusive sport by necessity. You need access to a river, oars, and boats in order to participate, which do not come at a small cost. Those who are able to reach high standards in sports such as rowing are often those who have been able to buy the best equipment and pay for lessons, training camps and competition fees. To take Dorney Lake as an example, a lake owned by Eton College which cost about £17 million to build, it is clear that benefits come with being privileged in the sport of rowing.

This image of elitism surrounding rowing distracts people from the beauty of the sport itself. To me, this is a shame. Stripped away from the dress codes and the social affair, the Saturday racing at Henley was a pleasure to watch. As I sat there watching Radley catch Eton College at the finish line to qualify for the finals, I experienced the same rush I felt watching a small scale race in my home club, the same rush as watching the winning try of a rugby match or the final sprint of a 4x400m relay. The satisfaction of the rowing stroke, the dingy room of ergometers, the humble stretch of river in my hometown and the boisterous trips to competitions fuelled by energy bars and trashy playlists. This is how I want rowing to be seen.

“I have only seen the sport through the eyes of an athlete”

While sharing stories about rowing with a close friend of mine, I learnt that she felt this sense of exclusivity within the sport firsthand, something of which I had no experience. I felt then, just as I felt whilst watching Henley, that although my eyes saw athleticism and community rather than elitism as the focus of rowing, my eyes are also those of someone who benefits from the elitism and privilege in the sport. I am both grateful and uncomfortable to be a part of this sport that gave me a sense of community when I needed it the most, but from which I cannot doubt I have benefited. I recognise how privileged I am to be able to participate in a sport I love, and I observed that rowing, amongst other sports, is so much more than a simple physical endeavour.


Mountain View

The unique community of college rowing in Cambridge

The acknowledgment of one’s own privilege in any activities that we choose to participate in is important in order to recognise our own fortunes and can enable us to create more inclusive atmospheres. This goes for so many aspects in our lives; rowing is just one example. As Cambridge students, we attend many events and traditions without realising how privileged we are to be accessing and experiencing them. Acknowledging this privilege is crucial in order to have any solution – to first realise the challenge and start a conversation. As for now, I am not sure what the solution is, nor do I know whether there is one. This is merely an observation, a reflection, on an enjoyable day in Henley but one where I also acknowledged and started to think more widely about our own privileges in rowing and beyond.