9 Sports at which Oxford Excels

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The University of Oxford isn’t just notable in academic terms.

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It also does remarkably well in terms of sport. True, it will never be as famed for sporting prowess as Loughborough, but it is particularly impressive given that sporting ability features nowhere in the Oxford admissions process. Unlike American universities, which take success in sports into account when looking at prospective students, if you – say – won a gold medal as an Olympic gymnast at the age of 17, the University of Oxford doesn’t care in the least unless you can demonstrate how that will be valuable to you in the study of your chosen academic subject. Good luck in explaining how your brilliance at hockey is useful to you when learning about mechanical engineering.
There are some sports Oxford does better at than others. For instance, there is a shortage of famous footballers who are Oxford graduates, at least after the 19th century. Here’s our list of the sports at which Oxford truly excels.

1. Real tennis

Henry VIII built his own Real Tennis court at Hampton Court Palace in 1528
Henry VIII built his own real tennis court at Hampton Court Palace in 1528

Real tennis is the somewhat pretentious name given to the sport that is what we used to call tennis about 500 years ago; so when you learn that Henry VIII was famed for his abilities at tennis, it’s real tennis that he was playing. That’s actually quite impressive as real tennis is said to be much harder than modern tennis. It’s played in an enclosed court, with a harder ball than modern tennis. With a modern tennis ball, it’s reasonably easy to predict how it will bounce off a wall, but the harder real tennis ball rebounds in unexpected ways, requiring the player to have quicker reaction times.
Oxford excels at this archaic and challenging game mostly because it’s very rarely played anywhere else (and not played all that often in Oxford either). The easier game of modern tennis began to grow in popularity in the 19th century, until real tennis was all but forgotten. There are only 43 real tennis courts in the world, and the newest one opened in Radley, near Oxford, in 2008 (though one is also being built in Berkshire). In total there are three real tennis courts in Oxfordshire, which is more than in the whole of France.

2. Croquet

Oxford is famous for croquet, not least because of its associations with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the children’s book written by Lewis Carroll, who was in real life an eccentric Oxford lecturer named Charles Dodgson. In Alice in Wonderland (as it’s more usually known), characters play croquet with flamingos for mallets, hedgehogs for balls and the Queen of Hearts’ soldiers for hoops. Alice gamely tries to take part but struggles when “just as she had got [the flamingo’s] neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head”, the flamingo looks up at her, and the hedgehog does its best to run away – quite understandably.

Inter-collegiate croquet is one of the University's biggest sporting events.
Inter-collegiate croquet is one of the University’s biggest sporting events.

Thankfully, at Oxford in the real world croquet is played with mallets and balls of a more standard kind (and with better-kept croquet lawns than the Queen of Hearts can provide). The Oxford University Croquet Club is based at University Parks, and holds an annual competition called Cuppers, which has in previous years been the biggest sporting event in Oxford University, with over one and a half thousand participants drawn from the university’s approximately 22,000 students.

3. Rowing

We couldn’t write an article about sports in Oxford without mentioning rowing. Arguably Cambridge is marginally better at rowing that Oxford, with 82 wins to Oxford’s 79 out of the total 162 races. If you’re wondering why that doesn’t add up, it’s because the 1877 boat race ended in a dead heat, not helped by the fact that the judge was blind in one eye and finishing posts would not be installed until the following year. But Oxford unquestionably excels at rowing all the same. 141 Oxonians have competed in rowing events in the Olympics, and between them they have won 42 gold medals, 36 of those for Great Britain (the USA and Canada were the other beneficiaries).

The annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge still draws thousands of spectators each year.
The annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge still draws thousands of spectators each year.

There are a wide range of rowing clubs in Oxford to encourage more people to take part, and many Oxford students will try out rowing for the first time at university. Colleges have their own clubs, as well as the university-wide clubs. All the same, it’s not for the faint-hearted: being involved in rowing at a university level usually involves getting up punishingly early in the morning to freeze on the Isis, which is the river on which most university rowing takes place (while the Cherwell, the other main river that flows through Oxford, is narrower and more winding, and therefore better suited to punting). For those students who don’t feel like pushing through ice floats in sub-zero temperatures in the middle of winter, cheering on the rowers during Eights Week, the university’s main regatta, is a popular alternative.

4. Running

Bannister in 2009.
Bannister in 2009.

Possibly the most famous feat in athletics was achieved in Oxford, by a graduate of Exeter College and Merton College. That was, of course, the first mile ever run in under four minutes, achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister on the Iffley Road track that now bears his name. Bannister was at the time a practising doctor, locked in a rivalry with the Australian runner John Landy, and to this day he says that he is prouder of his achievements in the field of medicine than in running. Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds, a record that held for 56 days. Then it was broken by Landy, who achieved a time of 3 minutes and 57.9 seconds.
Other Oxford runners have achieved medals at the Olympics, particularly for hurdles and shorter distances. Though Britain’s most successful marathon runner, Paula Radcliffe, is a graduate of Loughborough, the joint best placing for a British woman in the Olympic marathon was achieved in 2008 by Mara Yamauchi of St Anne’s College.  

5. Cricket

Oxford is considerably less famous for producing sportspeople than it is for producing politicians. But when it comes to the great cricketers that Oxford has produced, there is a remarkable overlap. This is inevitably the result of cricketers going into politics (perhaps capitalising on having already become well known through their sporting prowess), rather than politicians going into cricket, given the average age of champion crickets in comparison with the average age of successful politicians.

Cricket's popularity has now spread far beyond its native England.
Cricket’s popularity has now spread far beyond its native England.

The number of people who fall into the middle of this remarkable Venn diagram is astonishingly high. One example is Imran Khan, Pakistan’s most successful cricket captain, who the Economist described as “that rarest of player—a true all-rounder, equally adept at batting and bowling. He is only one of eight Test cricketers to have both scored over 3,000 runs and taken over 300 wickets” in their own article on cricket and politics. Khan is currently the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party, which is the third-largest in the country in terms of seats. Nearer home is Daniel Dalton, Conservative MEP and former county cricket player for Kent, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire.
But probably the most noteworthy of the lot is CB Fry, 1872-1956, who was described as “probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age”. Cricket was his chief sporting talent, but he also played football for Southampton FC and equalled the world record for the long jump. He was also academically talented but struggled with mental health problems that meant his academic record was not equal to his potential. He stood unsuccessfully for election on three occasions, but in 1920 was working for a friend at the League of Nations in Geneva when – apparently in all seriousness – he was offered the throne of Albania. He turned it down, and made a reasonable living writing about cricket instead.

6. Hockey

21 Oxonians have competed in Olympic hockey.
21 Oxonians have competed in Olympic hockey.

Hockey probably isn’t a sport you’d associate strongly with Oxford. All the same, 21 Oxonians have competed in Olympic hockey, including two team captains, gathering six bronze medals, one silver medal and four gold medals between them. St Edmund Hall along is responsible for five of those Olympians, though not for any of the medals.
It’s a little hard to say why Oxford seems to excel at hockey. It might make sense if the hockey-playing Olympians were female, as hockey in Britain is traditionally a women’s sport and Oxford’s women’s colleges offered rare opportunity for women to pursue their hobbies as well as their academic careers at a time when such things were usually closed off to women – but women’s hockey wasn’t an option at the Olympics until 1980 (when the winners were Zimbabwe), and all of Oxford’s Olympic hockey-players have been men.

7. Sailing

The natural landscape that makes Oxford well suited for rowing does not do the same for sailing – it’s about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in the UK, and there aren’t any particularly large lakes nearby either. All the same, four Oxonians have sailed in the Olympics, winning three gold medals between them, which is an impressive rate of success by anyone’s standards.

Oxonian sailing Olympians are an eclectic mix.
Oxonian sailing Olympians are an eclectic mix.

Looking at who those four Oxford graduates were is even more interesting. In 1908, there was Thomas Glen-Coates of Merton College, sailing for Great Britain. He designed his own boat, and went on to become a Member of Parliament and to inherit his father’s title of baronet. In 1948, there was Paul Smart of New College, sailing for the USA. He was a decorated veteran of the First World War, who sailed in the Olympics with his son, at the age of 56.
The final two Olympians are probably the strangest: King Olav V of Norway, a graduate of Balliol, who won gold in 1928, and his son King Harald V of Norway, also a graduate of Balliol, who competed in 1964 and 1968, but didn’t gain a medal on either occasion (he did rather better in the World Championships). King Harald V is the second cousin of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, and is still on the Norwegian throne today.

8. Fencing

The Varsity fencing match is now in its 190th year.
The Varsity fencing match is now in its 109th year.

Four Oxford graduates have won seven silver medals in fencing for Britain, at the Olympics games in 1906, 1908, 1912, 1960 and 1964. In 2012, Sophie Troiano became the only Oxford graduate to compete in fencing in the Olympics not to win silver. Oxford University has had a fencing club since 1891, which makes it one of the oldest fencing clubs in Britain.
A Varsity Fencing Match has been held against Cambridge since 1897; it’s now in its 109th year (the First and Second World Wars caused interruptions). At that time, Oxford had a stand-alone fencing club, but Cambridge had only a combined fencing and boxing club, a combination that sounds strange to modern ears, but would have seemed quite natural at the time, as they were both held to be gentlemen’s sports. King Olav V of Norway (remember him?) fenced for Oxford in the 1926 Varsity Match, at which time he was only the Crown Prince, and became a Half Blue (an Oxford sporting honour) for his efforts.

9. Mixed Literature

Our predecessors took a rather more holistic interpretation of 'sport'.
Our predecessors took a rather more holistic interpretation of what constitutes ‘sport’.

This list has to conclude with Oxford’s oddest Olympic success, which stretches the definition of ‘sport’ to its limits and beyond. In 1920, Theodore Cook, a Classics graduate of Wadham College, won a silver medal in the Olympics for ‘mixed literature’. At this time, the Olympics still included art competitions, which were only discontinued in 1948 – not because the arts were thought to have no place at a sporting event, but because artists were considered to be professionals, while the Olympics is a competition for amateurs. The literature competition allowed competitors to write a piece of up to 20,000 words in any language, as long as an English or French translation or summary was also provided.
Theodore Cook was also a sportsman, however; he rowed in the 1889 boat race, and was a keen fencer. In 1891 he founded the Oxford Fencing Club – see above – and captained the English fencing team in the 1903 and 1906 championships. But his ultimate success was as an art critic and writer, for which he received a knighthood, as well as his Olympic medal.

Image credits: olympic rings; runner; hampton court; croquet mallets; boat race 2007; roger bannister; cricket ball; hockey; sailing; fencing; book with lilac.