Why Cambridge Won The Boat Race – And Why It Nearly Lost

I wrote the following after half a bottle of Berry’s Good Ordinary Claret, exhausted from my research… In sharing this I make no claim to artistic merit (far from it – though this is probably as good as its gets after a bout of drinking on my part). Nor am I persuading you of the merits of alcohol-induced writing. However, one wonders sometime to what extent ‘good writing’ is undervalued in organization scholarship? Opinions no doubt vary on what ‘good writing’ entails (e.g. plain and uncomplicated? germanic? anecdotally rich? flowery? succinct? personal? impersonal? first person? third person?) Does writing style contribute to – or detract from – science proper? And what role, if any, is reserved for imagination and creativity? Need it come at the expense of methodological rigor?

In the circles of ethnographers such questions remains hugely pertinent. ‘Good’ (and, dare I say, imaginative) writing helps one pick up scents of tripe and damp in George Orwell’s “Wigan Pier”; of smoke and stout in Kate Fox’s “Pubwatching with Desmond Morris”; of sweat and leather in Loic Wacquant’s “Body and Soul”; of weed in Tom Wolfe’s psychedelic “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”; of fear and loathing in William Whyte’s “Street Corner Society”; of despair in Alexander Masters’ “Stuart: A Life Backwards”; of these things and more in our pen-and-paper universes.

Here is a relevant contribution by one of our best known organizational ethnographers, John Van Maanen:

“…there still is not much of a technique attached to ethnography despite the last 20 plus years of trying to develop a standard methodology… Ethnography it seems cannot and will not be made safe for science leaving it trapped as it were between the humanities and sciences. This I do not decry or find terribly worrisome for a standard methodology would effectively neuter or perhaps destroy the still present Columbian spirit that marks the trade as broadly inquisitive and adventurous – “bringing back the news” of what and how certain identifiable people are doing these days whether they are located at the far ends of the world or across the street.

There remains among many, perhaps most ethnographers, a general indifference if not distain for the seemingly endless efforts of social scientists to develop methodological rigor. In this respect, ethnography remains open to a relatively artistic, improvised and situated model of social research where the lasting tenets of research design have yet to leave their mark

… In the end, this is the way I think it should be

… textual sophistication can be (and has been) learned by many and will, in the end, help produce sharp, exciting, convincing and ultimately useful ethnographic work.” (“Ethnography then and now”, QROM, 1/1: 18)


With that in mind, here goes …

“Speed is a function of rhythm. And rhythm in a crew is surprisingly tangible. It is that easy, predictable, relentless, nothing-else-matters-no-matter-what feel of the boat – a separation of stroke and recovery, a flawless coordination of lungs and legs, of push and let go, of brace and release: a wedlock of oarsman and boat, of oarsman and coxswain, each stroke an investment with the certainty of a return.

This rhythm is designed to generate flow, that most enviable of experiences – one familiar to many yet extraordinarily difficult to call up at will. It captures that rare moment in time where one is totally absorbed in what one is doing. It’s the experience of pure harmony, or that point at which mind and matter fuse effortlessly and you know that something special has just occurred.
Flow is said to lift experience from the ordinary to the optimal, to a Zen-like state, and it’s in precisely those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing. For the oarsman, it’s an experience in which the self merges with the act of rowing and becomes indistinguishable from it. Where anxiety, self-doubt, indeed self-consciousness itself has been cut out as if by a clever surgeon – a feeling John Steinbeck described as very near to a kind of unconsciousness – where time changes its manner and where minutes disappear into the cloud of time. A time where everything finally falls into place: a groovy sensation of weightlessness yet total control, being really and truly alive in the present and knowing that nothing else matters, at least not now. Even as crowds roar, cameras flash, helicopters swivel dizzily overhead … yet none of it matters much. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is being right here right now – a rare glimpse of perfection.
The rhythm of a boat is like the beating of a heart: a platform upon which everything depends and all else becomes aligned. It is the condition on which flow depends – on which it feeds. And in a very real sense, it is the unremitting quest for rhythm and flow that helps explain the controversial choice to replace a brash but experienced American coxswain with one much less experienced, British and female. It explains why the five most experienced rowers questioned matters of selection, insisting that a Canadian oarsman be selected despite him being less competent than the Brit he would unseat.
It explains why Cambridge won the Boat Race, and why it nearly lost.” 


(The idea of “flow” was popularized by the Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.)

Written by markderond

May 31, 2008 at 12:17 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I would certainly want to add to your literary examples Coleridge (opium), Kerouac & Byron (wine), Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine (absinthe)… and the list goes on. Somehow the artistic soul and mind-altering states live hand in hand.

    Meanwhile, in matters of business writing, I have never heard of any standout item being written by an intoxicated person — no one that would readily admit it, anyway. That said, I have certainly heard some great and inspiring speeches — even in business — given with a liberalized lip.


    Minter Dial

    June 1, 2008 at 4:20 pm

  2. Nice additions… Some of my more intellectually fruitful discussions have taken place over a glass of wine – usually in the company of friends. That said, my aim was not to glorify substance ‘abuse’ in the interest of scholarship but to explore the tension that appears to exist between imagination and methodological rigor in ethnographic writing. Is this a tradeoff relationship? If so, why should methodological rigor trump our imaginative faculty as ethnographers? The short blurb on “flow” was the product of my imagination (though clearly grounded in my experiences as a rower, though not a particularly good one) – yet, as I hope to demonstrate elsewhere – captures much of what won Cambridge the Boat Race.

    What’s relevant is the degree to which the 500 or so words seem descriptive of the ‘real life’ experience of the crew. I didn’t ask them. Having read pieces of the draft, they commented on it.

    Just a thought…


    Mark de Rond

    June 1, 2008 at 6:52 pm

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