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The Boat Race - Where Tradition and Data Meet

The Boat Race - Where Tradition and Data Meet

This Sunday the blue Boats, Oxford being dark blue and Cambridge light blue, will be lining up on the Thames to start The Boat Race as they have been doing for over a century and a half. Perhaps the rowing event with the greatest following in the world, the annual Boat Race inflames the rivalry between two of the premiere British academic institutions. This race goes far beyond the boundaries of the rowing world though, with over 25 million viewers tuning in to watch it live and over 250 thousand people lining the banks of the river. As a former rower myself, this spectacle has always been a fascinating event, and that’s why for this edition I decided to dive into its history using self-service data discovery tools to understand over 150 years’ worth of data points. The dashboard I created to visualize this information reveals insights from the past of the boat race, explores the present, and gives a glimpse of the future.

In this blog post I will highlight some of the most interesting discoveries I made while analyzing the history of the race, but make sure you explore the dashboard to learn about the 2014 crews and who might win this race. Before diving into the bulk of the data, I decided to look at the outcome of the race over time. In Image 1 below you can see one bar for each race over time, colored by the shade of blue worn by the winner.

The visualization immediately highlights the streaky nature of the boat race, at least until recent years. Despite the long winning streaks in the past, we are now in a situation of relative parity. The count of wins now stands at 77 for Oxford and 81 for Cambridge, with a single dead heat finish back in 1877. Will Cambridge widen the gap this year or will Oxford build on last year’s win to get even closer?

The first visualization conveys important summary level information on the races, but other data points allow us to further explore each event. For example, much attention is given to the official weigh-in of the crews a couple of weeks before the race. The reason for this is because the weight of the athletes is looked at as a potential indicator of the power or strength of a squad in a given year. So what does the average weight distribution of a blue boat look like? Image 2 visualizes the average weight of all the rowers for Oxford and Cambridge throughout the years. Looking at the bars the most striking thing is how similar they are in each seat, the greatest difference being less than half a Kilogram (just over a pound). They also both follow the theory of weight distribution in a rowing boat, with the lightest men in the bow and stern and the heaviest athletes in middle seats, often referred to as the engine room.

We see the average weights in Image 2, but that doesn’t allow us to see trends and patterns in the weight over time. One would imagine that with modern advancements in nutrition science and sports training boat race rowers would be getting heavier. Is that the case? Image 3 answers that question.


Each dot is a rower and is colored by the university represented. It is apparent that rowers have indeed been getting significantly heavier over the years. We can see that it took 67 editions of the Boat Race for an athlete of 90 kgs(198 lbs) to appear and 115 to break the 100 kgs(220lbs) mark. That peak was successively eclipsed by Thorsten Engelmann in 2007 when he tipped the scales at just over 110 kgs(244lbs), still the heaviest to date. The athletic progression of the rowers is undeniable, but has it impacted the finishing time of races?

As you can see in Image 4, despite the variability of tides, weather and more, the winning time of the Boat Race has indeed been getting faster over time. It is important to note that other factors such as advancements in boat-making techniques and technical proficiency of rowers are most likely also contributing to this trend. At the very least though, it seems plausible that the increased weight of rowers has resulted in faster times overall.

As I mentioned at the start of the blog post, these visualizations only highlight a few of the insights on the boat race contained in the dashboard. Make sure to explore interactively yourselves to find out a lot more and get ready for Sunday!

To access the Dashboard and find your own insights, click here.

For more information on Self-Service Analytics and Data Discovery, click here.

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