How losers can also be winners

Cambridge were swamped and soundly beaten in the Boat Race, yet former Olympic rower Cath Bishop discovers that the defeated crew have emerged as veritable inspirations in the eyes of many

There are winners. There are losers. And sometimes the losers can be winners, too. It happened on the Thames in London on Easter Sunday when a coxed rowing eight lost a race in which only winning counts, yet appear to have emerged as winners in some broader sense. How did that happen?

Normally, if a crew were beaten by 24 lengths, as Cambridge were in the 2016 Women’s Boat Race, it would be almost shameful and embarrassing. Instead, the Light Blue crew have elicited a tidal wave of support from so many different people who see them as an awesome inspiration. As chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, I have been bowled over in the week or so since the race by the response to the crew’s gutsiness in the face of adversity when they nearly sank on the Tideway. Here are just a few of the comments I have received:

‘You may have lost the race but you won the hearts of all who love sport by your absolutely amazing spirit and courage to not give in – it really moved me and epitomised the very best in sport.’

‘Your courage to finish that race in terrifying conditions had me in floods of tears – I was so proud of you! And you should be absolutely proud of yourselves. Heads high!’

‘Just been discussing it with my daughter and we agreed the Cambridge women’s crew were winners in every way but one. Truly inspiring. When the cox’s arm went up to signal she was rejecting help we were thrilled and awestruck simultaneously.’

So, were the Cambridge girls simply fulfilling the British stereotype of plucky losers, or could they perhaps be inspiring us to look more broadly at how we evaluate success, and reminding us not to cut out everything that happens in sport that doesn’t result in a gold medal?

The annual University Race is a brutal duel, win or lose. There is no consolation for the runners-up, no silver medal. As I still starkly remember from my own losing experience back in the 1990s, a Boat Race loss is as desolate a sporting experience as any young student can encounter. It took me well over a year to (over)analyse what the loss meant on a personal and team level, how it had happened and how I could prevent it ever happening again. I think that loss in a perverse way sealed my love for the sport. It rooted within me a deep determination to fight back that helped me through the turbulent ups and downs of three Olympic Games and imbued me with a useful resilience for everything that life has thrown at me since.

In a world where success seems defined purely by winning, the 71st Women’s Boat Race has opened up that hidden yet deep-seated desire in us to find a richer meaning in what we do and what we see others do. It showed how sport can reflect the fuller experiences and values in life beyond ‘just winning’. Books about ‘winning’ abound on Amazon, whether it’s Clive Woodward’s ‘Winning’ or Alistair Campbell’s recent book on ‘Winners: And How They Succeed’. They are trying to uncover that magic formula for which there is a never-ending audience, as hungry as those in search of that perfect weight-loss solution and latest diet breakthrough. To be a winner: it’s what everyone wants from an early age, desperation exudes already in the playground as children long to be labelled a ‘winner’ and not a ‘loser’, a crude binary use of language that discriminates and excludes so many so painfully early in life.

Yet I suddenly have hope for a more balanced and inclusive way forward for kids playing school sport, for our Olympians who normally face an overly simplistic ‘win-loss’ summation of their efforts, and for all of us who fail again and again in our lives: the flood of responses that heralded the grit, courage, tenacity and fortitude displayed by nine exceptional students.

I am not saying we don’t want to win the Boat Race next year with more determination than ever at Cambridge, or that as a country we don’t desperately want a good position in the medals table at Rio – but let’s not cut out the real and valuable sporting experiences of those who fought valiantly but lost on the Thames on Easter Sunday or those who may not make it on to the podium this summer. They may learn crucial lessons to make it in Tokyo in 2020, or may simply give their courageous best and learn some crucial lessons to apply to their lives after sport. Let’s not airbrush out the ‘losers’ – the response from the rowing community and the wider public over the last 10 days has suggested that would be the biggest loss.

The Cambridge women’s team had trained with ferocious intensity 12 times a week since September. Each day was gruelling, with regular 5am starts and late finishes after a full day of lectures and tutorials. Yet every day was about developing an indefatigable team spirit that would steel them to face the unpredictable forces that the Tideway, from Putney to Chiswick, can throw at the Boat Race crews every March. Cambridge were underdogs going into the race with fewer years of rowing than the Oxford boat, and knew that a loss would be unbearable. It would also continue the ever more painful run of defeats, and that victory was essential in order to restore pride to themselves and the boat club.

Yet somehow, and I am still trying to work out exactly how, they have managed to restore greater pride than the club has ever known.


Cath Bishop is chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club. She was a Cambridge Blue in 1991 and 1993, losing the first and victorious in the second. With Kath Grainger she was world champion in the coxless pairs in 2003, and won a silver medallist in the same pairing at the 2004 Olympic Games. She was a commentator during the BBC’s coverage of the 2016 Boat Race. Cath’s latest articles.

2 thoughts on “How losers can also be winners

  • 7th April 2016 at 9:16 am

    Kath This is a fantastic article and I could not agree more. Somehow they restored faith in human nature by how they behaved. 🙂 I think we are all a little fed up with the ‘Go for Gold’ and the media attitude of as you said in your article ‘winning’ is the only important thing. In fact they are missing the whole point of the team spirit. Lovely to read your articles and I will subscribe from now onwards.

    I hope you are well. I worked with GB Rowing when you were there but it is along time ago and you probably will not remember me . Anyway , great article. 🙂 Kind regards, Jacqueline Knox Physiotherapist.

  • 7th April 2016 at 9:38 am

    Good article. Yes they did show great fortitude carrying on even though they knew they were beaten. Reminds me of my little boy who at the tender age of six took part in the school ‘cross country’ (once round the school field) . He tripped and fell at the first corner and by the time he got up again he was a whole side of the field behind. My heart sank for him. But….he carried on, and when he got to the little ones, who were all sitting on the bank and watching, he waved the whole way past them! They all clapped and cheered, having had their afternoon made. He was a bit upset at having come so badly last but when I told him how proud of him I was for not giving up and how much other people had said the same he perked up no end. The following year a parent I was talking to remembered him, and told me how lovely it had been. No one could remember who won….

    This is what we need to be teaching our children. Not that it’s all about winning. Not that we need to protect them from failure. But that failure is part of life for everyone and how we handle it is what defines us. That if we truly gave our all but still didn’t beat the opposition, then the opposition were just better and there is no shame in that, someone has to be.

    Well done Cambridge! X


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