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Rowing: Imports enhance historic struggle; UNIVERSITY BOAT RACE.

Byline: By Mike Sinclair

Olympic oarsman Barney Williams has defended the University Boat Race against charges that the event has sold out to modern-day commercial pressures by importing world-class international rowers.

Williams, a member of the Canadian four which narrowly failed to deny Matthew Pin-sent his fourth Olympic gold medal at the Olympic Games two years ago, will row alongside two Americans, another Canadian, a Frenchman and three Englishmen for Oxford in tomorrow's race.

Their Light Blue rivals, Cambridge, field three Germans, two Americans, an Australian, a South African, Welshman Tom James and just one Englishman, Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medallist Kieran West.

The event, sponsored by Xchanging, will be watched by millions of viewers on ITV1 and will be screened in more than 100 countries around the world.

But Williams believes that the race, which traces its roots all the way back to 1829, has its place in the sporting world of 2006.

"The British have their traditions, some of which they are very committed to, but you have to move with the times," he said.

"If they wanted to restrict the race to undergraduates or British nationals - and they could do that - then you may run into the question of does the race have the same sort of competitive appeal?

"It's really all about what avid sports fans are looking for now and what appeals to people is the sense of the unknown.

"In the last few years, there has been a really positive element about the race and that's only going to happen if both clubs continue to embrace internationals.

"When you hear commentators and coaches say the race is of world championship standard it would, as a sports fan, turn my head and say 'wow, this is something you have to take notice of'," argued the engaging Williams, the only survivor from last year's victorious Oxford crew, the heaviest in Boat Race history at 15st 6lbs a man.

The fact that a couple of his Dark Blue colleagues were unable to secure PhD courses this year is evidence enough for Williams to maintain that the universities are not lowering academic standards in pursuit of sporting success.

"What Oxford offers is academic. The Tideway is a long way from Oxford, so you have to be in it for the right reasons," he said.

"The rowers I know have always seemed to embrace academics. It's seemed important to life after rowing, maybe because this is a bit of a deadend sport in the sense that we're never really going to take it to a Premiership way of making money.

"Providing the integrity of the race is still there, which is this race between two very-much amateur groups of athletes - and by amateur I mean self-funded and also, of course, students - as long as those two components are both in place, bring on the talent," said the Canadian who admits he has "fallen in love" with this peculiarly British sporting institution.

Most of the people watching, from the estimated 250,000 on the banks of the River Thames, on ITV and on global television, have never studied at Oxford or Cambridge but they testify to theunique appeal of the event. "The marketing side of it is a product of the interest in the race," added Williams pointedly.

"You can't market and sponsor something that people don't care about."

Rowing against him will be West, who went one better than the Canadian by winning gold with the British eight at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

West, who enjoyed Boat Race triumphs in 1999 and 2001 - either side of the Olympic triumph which also earned him an MBE - fulfils all the academic requirements after returning to Cambridge to study for a PhD in First World War Strategy and Military Intelligence.

"My primary reason for being back is the PhD, but my memories of the Boat Race are absolutely fantastic and the chance to have another crack at it is great," enthused West, who describes his current Gallipoli battlefield research as "real 'Boys Own' stuff."

Completing the Boat Race hat-trick seven years after his first victory would merit the same description.

CAPTION(S):

Barney Williams (left) and Jake Wetzel are among the influx of international talent taking part in this year's race
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:709
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