The independent voice of rowing in Britain

Heat turns up for Daddy Oldfield

Posted by rowingvoice on July 3, 2013

Christopher Dodd at the first day of Henley

leanderflagSigns of the times in Henley: the recession has arrived on the town side of the river, with at least six shops boarded up within spitting distance of the Town Hall. Inflation has hit the regatta side, with Pimm’s at 10 quid a pint in the champagne bar, I hear. Flag at half mast at Leander Club to honour Harry Parker, Harvard’s coach of 50 years, who passed away last week. Gloriana moored outside the boat tent, the most gorgeous lady in town. Ran into Walter Hoover, son of the Walter Hoover who beat Jack Beresford Jr in the Diamonds in 1922 in a boat he designed himself. Crews from all over the country and many parts of the world and thousands of people without cares in the world, or so it seemed on a crowded first day of Henley. As the racing programme sorted 80 winners from 80 losers, it got me thinking about elitism, protest and rights.

The Aussie with two surnames, Trenton Oldfield, has found that the water he jumped into on Boat Race day 2012 is hotter than he first thought. The Home Office rejected his application for a spousal visa, declaring his presence in Britain ‘not conducive to the public good’. After living in the UK for 12 years he will be deported back to Australia, barring a successful appeal. His British wife Naik gave birth to their first child a few days later.

According to Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian, Oldfield hadn’t worried about his immigration status when he dived into the Thames in front of the crews to protest about ‘elitism’ in Britain. ‘It was a peaceful protest, so immigration stuff didn’t seem relevant,’ he said. Nor was he worried when officials pulled him from the water into a police boat. ‘There was no feeling of threat – it was very smooth, not dramatic. People were joking and laughing, and the police were saying: “What was all that about then?”’

Ahem. From where I was sitting in the press launch, I didn’t notice that Oldfield was wearing rose-tinted goggles. I would say that he slightly misjudged the tone of the reception he received. I think a great deal of restraint was shown, especially on the umpire’s catamaran when the privately educated ex-rower from Sydney was yanked aboard. The smile on his face was not reciprecated.

The water began to boil for Oldfield later when the police upgraded his charge from a public order offence to public nuisance, an arcane common law carrying a maximum sentence of life. ‘That’s when we began to worry,’ said Trenton’s wife Naik.

Deportation, according to Oldfield in the Guardian interview, would set a precedent of undermining British people’s human rights. Asked what his protest achieved, he said: ‘I believe my thesis has been proven, that elitism leads to tyranny.’

The Home Secretary may decide that the six-month prison sentence, of which Oldfield served two in Wormwood Scrubs and has turned his experience into a book, was punishment enough for seditious disruption of a boat race. It’s hard to find sympathy for such an ill-thought out protest or such a crass life-endangering act.

But the issue of deportation certainly has a nasty taste on top of the question of what’s the point of time-serving in the Scrubs on the public purse. I find myself in agreement with Tobias Garnett, who wrote in the Guardian that, as someone who had rowed in the Boat Race before 2012, his main reaction was of anger at this act of sabotage, which cruelly robbed both crews of a fair resolution to this increasingly tight race and to their months of training.

But, he went on, ‘if the sabotage of the race was what I felt most viscerally, for Oldfield that was mere collateral. His real intention [having settled on elitism as his target] was to spark a debate.’ The Home Office’s decision to reject Oldfield’s application for a spousal visa leaves Garnett thinking his actions were indefensible, yet wanting to take him up on the invitation and defend him as he is swept into a much larger debate about the politicisation of legal sanctions.

‘To outsiders, the Boat Race may have looked like an over-hyped coin toss, but in reality it was not the best target for Oldfield to make his point…  The rowing event is completely free to the hundreds of thousands of people who come to watch it each year… The Boat Race is an amateur event; there is no prize beyond winning. It has minimal environmental impact, and means a lot to the Londoners who line the route every spring.’

But when it bangs to rights, the principles of human rights should apply to everyone, says Garnett. ‘The Human Rights Act enshrines those principles in UK law, providing protection against the anger and changeability of public opinion, or a home secretary too prone to pander to its excesses. That we apply these principles equally to those with whom we fundamentally disagree, is the proof of our commitment to them.’

Christopher Dodd’s book, Pieces of Eight, the story of Bob Janousek and his Olympians, is available at the RRM and HRR shops or by mail order from

“Pieces of Eight is a fascinating book, full of drama and colour, essential reading for anyone interesting in rowing, sport in the 1970s or understanding what it takes to build world-class teams.” – Professor Tony Collins, Director of the International Centre for Sports History & Culture, De Montfort University

For information on Chris Dodd’s books, visit   


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