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Viva La Varsity

Maurício Alencar looks at the age-old tradition of Varsity sport.

Dark Blue vs Green. Green? Shouldn’t it be Light Blue? A Cantabridgian colour does not exist. It’s always slightly different. Cambridge University Ladies’ netball Club comes closest to wearing the closest acceptable shade of light blue. The pigment on the Lax club is somewhere closer to the mixed green-blue-turquoise. 

And live from the River Thames, the rowers from the eastern side of the OxCam arc just dress up in full green, no shame. Snotgreen, à-la-Joyce. Don’t even talk to me about the colours of CUAFC. The rugby team goes about completely avoiding Oxonian mockery, adding in white stripes to avoid full-scale artistic scrutiny. A fun fact for you, to add to the pure humiliation: Cambridge used to play in pink!

Taking offence to the rival’s colours exemplifies the haughty spirit of tribal elitism. What does ‘shoe the tabs’ even mean? Varsity is a fixture founded upon a snobbish, Victorian chivalric, public schoolish, stop-masturbating-in-your-bedroom-young-boys clash of virility and masculine physicality. Those great chaps who went to Oxford and Cambridge in the 19th century had to do something to get themselves outside: kicking a round football for the first time in 1874, kicking a strange oval ball for the first time in 1872, challenging each other to race boats down the river for the first time  in 1829. Varsity, why do you exist? Why do you think you are relevant?

The feelings among the rest of the British population are of this kind. Broadcasters’ interest in Varsity has significantly declined. Rugby league varsity only had a one-year cameo broadcast on Sky Sports. The rugby Union Varsity Matches used to be shown live on BBC One or ITV, but today no longer attract their interest. Long gone are the days when football Varsity was played at Wembley, let alone at Premier League stadiums such as Craven Cottage. Rumours are floating around that this year may be the last cricket Varsity at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Varsity is no longer regarded as the cornerstone event that represents the glory of esteemed British academia. The very institutions of the University of Oxford or Cambridge themselves may not be so greatly revered today as they once were, despite the enormous successes of scientific research. 

Like gowns at formals, speeches in Latin, trumpets at matriculation, Varsity is one of those old outdated traditions that could probably be done away with. Varsity is, by definition today, amateur sport played by “I-am-at-Oxbridge!” students who probably care way too much about their erg or beep test times. 

Varsity is harmless fun. The friendly animosity of the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is an energetic distraction to the soul-burning and hand-hurting activities of academic life. This forged conflict between the two historic universities is no real inconvenience of any kind to anyone today. Varsity sport fixtures are the Oxbridge student’ chance to actively escape the hard work-life, to emotionally invest oneself into a banter world of game, and to play competitive sport. It’s a pretty tradition. 

If the prestige of Varsity has declined over the last years, it has had little impact on the impassioned spirit of respective sports clubs. As much as Varsity may be for the patriotic man who is proud of the country’s success in academia and research, Varsity is for the 19-year-old student who cycles 20 minutes out of the city to train with his teammates at 9pm on a Monday night despite being in a serious essay-crisis. Varsity is for the proud parents taking a trip to Oxford to watch their wonder daughter play hockey for the 3s in the middle of Storm Eunice. Varsity is for the supportive friends who take their megaphones to sing silly and amiably provocative chants like “Have you ever seen Cambridge make a vaccine?”. Varsity is for committed coaches who could have once-upon-a-time “gone pro” if they hadn’t injured themselves. Varsity is for the postgraduates recruited from Oceania to win one game. Varsity is for the strict referees who are shouted at by annoyed students on the sidelines. Varsity is for the glee of shoeing the tabs. Varsity is for Park End and VK. Varsity’s for sanity though it’s weird, for tradition though it’s shady, for health though it’s stressful, for camaraderie though it’s absurd. 

… Most crucially: Varsity is for Oxford to win and C*mbridge to lose. 

Image: ale/ CC BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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