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Clement Freud
January 04, 1971
The former got lots of the latter when Oxford and Cambridge met Egypt in a more or less titanic struggle, after which a sporting question arose: How many saw the belly dancer's scar? This English writer vows he did
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January 04, 1971

Blues And Hangovers On The Nile

The former got lots of the latter when Oxford and Cambridge met Egypt in a more or less titanic struggle, after which a sporting question arose: How many saw the belly dancer's scar? This English writer vows he did

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The Nile boat races, stated the Sunday Times of London, would take place at Cairo and Luxor in deep December. Oxford and Cambridge were sending a crew each and, in view of the crocodiles, they hoped the winning cox would not be thrown into the Nile. As one who knew that crocodiles left the upper reaches of the Eternal River soon after the first Aswan Dam was built in 1902, I still found the item of compulsive interest.

December is not the time for a university crew to do anything but drink and wonder about who is going to row where on that magic day in March when the Oxford and Cambridge eights race from Putney to Mortlake on the Thames. For that 20-minute ordeal the 18 men are awarded a Blue, which is something akin to a sports letter in the U.S. but more powerful, and after that jobs come easily. You do not, they say in England, ever see a bookmaker on a bicycle or a rowing Blue queuing at the employment exchange.

In London, Samir Raouf of the United Arab Republic's tourist information center smiled expansively and said, "Oh yes, the Nile boat race is the brainchild of our Undersecretary for the Ministry of Tourism, an old oarsman who has great plans for holding the event in conjunction with river pageants, singing priests, golden chariots...." And perhaps some piaster-spending jet setters cheering from the towpath.

He did admit that tourism since the Six-Day War was something of a non-event—probably on a par with the same industry in Vietnam. From his own point of view it would be a great joy to get some real tourists into his country. He sounded like a man from whose lips the words "sphinx" and "pyramid" had just about run down the delta and out to sea.

Chris Rodriguez is the president of the Cambridge University Boat Club. A dedicated man, he was definitely not prepared to jeopardize the chance of beating Oxford for the fourth year running by what he called "a week's jaunt to the Middle East." If the race had been in June, he said, he would have taken the real Cambridge crew. What he did in December was embargo the 24 top men on his list and then select a team of Old Blues and undergraduates who for reasons of work or lack of prowess were left out of his final two dozen. He also went up to London to consult with the Foreign Office about the desirability of sending a crew. The Foreign Office saw no reason for not going to Egypt in December, though the worthy guru that Rodriguez consulted in a broom cupboard in Whitehall did mention that it would be unwise to let the crews dress up in frogmen's suits. They might be mistaken for Israelis.

Meanwhile, at Oxford, Jerry Dale, Rodriguez' opposite number, had fewer misgivings. Saying this was just what was needed to develop preseason strength, he selected a dozen men—about half of whom probably will row in the Oxford boat in March.

And so they came to the airport, where the Egyptian ambassador gave a farewell party, snatched a quick look at the seven journalists accompanying the tour and settled down with one and all to demolish an impressive array of Scotch whiskey. On balance, such balance as was maintained, the Oxford men were the extroverts—though students of form felt they had a surfeit of chieftains and could have done with a few hardworking, silent Indians.

The fact that fog descended upon London, that a journalist passed out as a result of demon drink, that we arrived in Cairo for breakfast instead of dinner and got to Luxor for late lunch instead of morning coffee are unimportant to the main plot, though they could explain the English universities' first training session. Lethargically did the 16 men row down the Nile while the two coxes croaked epithets at them like witches in Macbeth.

Also on the river was the enemy—the Cairo Police eight, who are the Egyptian champions, and an eight representing Cairo University. The gentlemen of the press watched these preliminaries eagerly and saw nothing to instill any fear that England would fail.

When it comes to international rowing, Egypt has not been in the top 10 since Cleopatra barged about with Antony. The Cairo Police, taking fast, short, heavy dips when it is generally agreed that long rhythmic pulls are more conducive to speed in a racing shell, gave no indication that they were going to change this situation.

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