When Trenton Oldfield, weird and wrongheaded, jumped into the River Thames last Saturday to protest the Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race specifically and elitism in sports generally, he did us all a favor. Not only did he cement his blazing idiocy in sports history, but he re-energized the debate over elitism in sports. And while doing so, gave us hard proof that it’s needed and necessary.
Oldfield, a 35-year-old Australian who lives in London and works for a non-profit, is sort of late to the debate over elitism in sports. And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the sport of crew is steeped in elitism, or rather rowing’s best and brightest.
Since 1829, Great Britain’s most famous college-crew race has been gliding along the Thames, luring loads of spectators and, in more recent years, protesters. Usually, protesters are happy fanning their cause with banners, hoping to reach out to a televised network audience and maybe a few spectators. But nobody has yet to make a physical protest that actually halted the race as Oldfield did this Saturday.
Before the race Oldfield, who loftily compares himself to Emily Davison, the suffragette who died after throwing herself before King George V’s horses in 1913, whipped up a rambling 2,100-word manifesto on his blog, ELITISM LEADS TO TYRANNY. Elitism, he argued, has no place in sports. He announced plans to disrupt the boat race and Olympics with “guerrilla tactics.”
He complained in the posting that the banks of the Thames between the more well-heeled districts of Kew and Chiswick, where the race is held, is “a site where elitists and those with elitist sympathies have come together” and “reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.”
As luck would have it, Oldfield himself is a product of an elite British university: the London School of Economics. He also attended Australia’s most exclusive private schools.
Oldfield then goes on to suggest ways his fellow protesters can take down the elitist establishment. He encourages building janitors to set off fire alarms and cut power, urges office workers to “misplace” paperwork and clog email accounts, and for taxi drivers to take passengers the slowest and most expensive routes. He also directs restaurant staff to serve food cold, plumbers to sabotage conservative businesses’ toilets, and exterminators to plant infestations in the homes of “elitist sympathizers.”
I’m honestly surprised he has not suggested public flatulence.
Elitism leads to tyranny? Nonsense. Elitism leads to better boat races. Would we rather have a lazy, mediocre, and unmotivated crew? We want the best. We want dedication. We want a good show. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, long hours to be the best. There is, however, something wrong with marring the culmination of years of hard training to prove a pointless point.
Competition in sports has always been about seeking the absolute best—in other words, the elite. But fools such as Oldfield are trying to turn the Greek Olympics into the Special Olympics.
Oldfield stole the competition from the oarsmen on Saturday when, according to one report, he told some spectators, “I just want a bit of quiet today.” Then he proceeded to take off and fold his clothes, hang his jacket on a tree, place his book and cell phone on his clothes, and plunge into the chilly Thames.
One onlooker told The Sun:
There was also a strange and scary book — I think it was called Conflict or Die. He must have been reading it before we arrived. We were a bit freaked out. The book seemed to be about death. I thought he had been trying to kill himself.
Unfortunately, no. He was trying to disrupt the race, which he did successfully, leaving lots of very pissed-off people, including British Olympic Association chairman and Olympic rowing medalist Colin Moynihan, who coxed the 1977 Oxford team to victory on the Thames and said he felt for the rowers. Moynihan said:
These guys train for seven months, day in, day out—it’s their sporting event because it is just one race. You don’t have a whole season to look forward to.
Ivor Roberts, chairman of Vincent’s, the Oxford club for sportsmen, admitted to the Daily Mail it was a sad day:
One piece of grotesque selfishness and deluded self-importance ruined a harmless piece of enjoyment for thousands upon thousands on the banks of the Thames and countless millions of viewers worldwide.
The Oxford crew was doubly mad after losing the race. Karl Hudspith, president of the Oxford University Boat Club, Tweeted to Oldfield:
My team went through seven months of hell, this was the culmination of our careers and you took it from us.
Even his hometown newspaper called him a tool.
And that’s only a prelude to the Olympics, warns Oldfield. But come the Olympics in July, 25,000 guards, soldiers, and police officers will be swarming along the banks of the River Thames, nervous and itchy. And that security won’t be nearly as forgiving as it was last Saturday, where Oldfield was only cuffed and arrested for disturbing public order.
When I worked for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, staff was given a creepy warning: Don’t act suspiciously, because at any time you could have a high-powered rifle and scope aimed at you. Make no sudden moves and never carry anything remotely resembling a weapon.
On the heels of September 11, 2001, threat levels were very real for the Olympics. Security was out there even if you did not see them. One friend, while backcountry skiing along the outside ridges of Park City, Utah during an Olympic test event, took a breather one sunny afternoon. Leaning against a tree, he threw off some gear and was about to catch his breath when the snow-covered floor erupted all around him. Narrowly averting a heart attack, he slowly realized it was a clutch of heavily armed security in white snowsuits. They lowered their guns and strongly urged him to move on.
My advice to Oldfield? In July, give us a show. Before you jump, act furtively and suspiciously, then yell, “Sic semper tyrannis!” And man up at least. Lose the wetsuit.
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