CUAC has roots in more quaint Cambridge traditionsChloe Merrell

While it may be a well-known fact among Cambridge students that their city and university played a formative role in the foundation of the modern game of football (boasting the world’s oldest football club no less), it may come as more of a surprise to readers to learn that its athletics’ club also stands as the world's oldest and a fellow progenitor of the sport in the UK. 

There are those who could be forgiven for thinking that athletics traces back to that infamous 1920’s dash around Trinity’s cobbles, which was incarnated in the 1981 vintage Chariots of Fire. However, it in fact finds its formation some 70 years earlier, in the 1850s, with the Cambridge University Athletics Club (CUAC).

Cambridge’s first foray into athletics proper may well, like its footballing provenance, have been inspired by the great public schools, who were at the time attempting to busy students with the pursuit of sport as a slightly more wholesome pastime than the apparent alternative of killing local wildlife. Students arriving from these institutions perhaps decided their old schoolmasters might have been on to something and brought these newfangled sports along with them to university. 

Much to the disappointment of spectators everywhere, the modern sport has chosen not to stick with some of the mighty tribulations that the inaugural ‘University Games’ boasted, such as the nostalgic sack race or quaintly titled ‘scurry hurdle race’. 

"The modern sport has chosen not to stick with some of the mighty tribulations that the inaugural 'University Games' boasted"

It seems to me, then, that it is the playing fields of Cambridge, and not the race tracks of Doha, that 2020 Varsity hopefuls should be looking towards to overturn a painful recent history featuring three consecutive losses

That isn’t to say that UK athletes haven’t impressed in the Championships this year, with Dina Asher-Smith taking silver in the 100m and a first UK sprint gold for 26 years in the 200m. Eighteen-year-old Ukrainian Yaroslava Mahuchikh also claimed silver and broke the under 20’s world record twice in stunning fashion. Uganda’s Halimah Nakaayi stole the show with both her finish and all-singing all-dancing celebrations in the 800m. And Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s lap of honour with her young son Zyon provided yet another example of female sporting titans returning successfully after childbirth.

Undoubtedly, there are conquests such as those of Asher-Smith and Mahuchikh which can inspire CUAC athletes on to glory. But what could be more inspirational to the next generation of Light Blues than the image of their 1857 archetypes boldly conquering those gargantuan hurdles equipped with nothing but cricket shoes and a can-do attitude? And what is a 200m sprint gold when one contrasts that against the rapturous feeling that only comes in flying over a solid white line burlap sack flailing in the wind? 

Affixing these rousing images to the forefront of the mind may be exactly what is required to turn the recent tide of Varsity Athletic contests. Since 2017, the club has succumbed to three consecutive defeats, including two at 4-0 margins, despite some valiant individual performances. 


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To do so may begin to restore some parity in overall record. Despite CUAC’s three year head start in formation, since the first meeting in 1864 the current tally stands at 76-61 in favour of the Dark Blues with 7 draws. This is thankfully balanced by a far more flattering state of affairs for the Women’s, at 31-13 to Cambridge since the first in 1975, including an unparalleled 12 in a row from 1978 to 1989. For the seconds, CUAC’s men’s Centipedes trail OUAC’s Alverstone 39-29, whilst in women’s the Oxford Millipedes lead the Cambridge Alligator’s 16-14. 

But, as preparations begin for the 2020 contest, CUAC must not allow recent contests to define the future conquests of this (quite literally) most historic of clubs, when such illustrious precedents are on offer.

While success will be no mean feat, perhaps the 153rd anniversary of Cambridge Athletics, and an emulation of those at its roots, can present a reversal of fortune and inspire even more Cantabs to don their flannel shirts and get scurrying.

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