Sport is defined by its sub-plots. The joy of victory, the pain of loss and the grit of redemption are easy to understand and even easier to relate to. That is what makes it so eminently watchable.
And beyond the relentless drama of the mainstream, there remain some quite remarkable tales to be told. Peripheral sports, those that do not demand, or indeed supply, regular newspaper inches come into their own every so often.
The Boat Race, due to take place this Sunday, is one such example.
An amateur contest that roots itself in the intense rivalry between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, it is different - and popular for being just that. Every year, thousands of people line the banks of the Thames for a chance to see the two crews fleetingly slip by whilst thousands more watch from the comfort of their homes. It is as intensely competitive as sport can be – you are Oxford or you are Cambridge. There is no middle ground and no opportunity for reconciliation of that fact. You pick a side and, for the athletes certainly, it becomes a part of you.
The event is steeped in history and drama, from the first challenge issued in 1829 by Charles Merivale of Cambridge to the incredible sequence of events in 2003 that led to a victory for Oxford of just one foot. Although the race may not pan out in quite the same fashion this year, there is a parallel between that gripping finale and this season’s campaign. In 2003, the race was particularly significant for its inclusion of two sets of brothers, both racing against their sibling. The bitter blow of losing to your closest rivals can only be innately heightened by the fact that your own flesh and blood is celebrating your defeat loudest. Imagine, then, the joys of winning together.
For Jamie and Oliver Cook, brothers and Oxford crew-mates, that dream could become reality on Sunday. Jamie is the only Oxford Blue to have returned from last year’s losing crew but he feels the boat is in a much better position than it was a year ago. “We’ve been going really well,” he explains. “Our preparation and fixtures have gone according to plan and that obviously helps our mind-set. For me, it’s important to approach the race with a winning mentality. I need to have full confidence in the fact that I can line up next to my opposition and objectively beat them.”
This will be Ollie’s first Boat Race, but the 26-year-old is already a senior world champion with the GB Rowing Team. “Jamie and I rowed together at the University of London and I’ve always generally been the one who led the way, as I was older and a bit more experienced,” he says. “This time round though, Jamie has done it all before me and he’s handing out the guidance. We get on really well as brothers and there’s that competitive element that pushes us both on.”
As Jamie puts it, “there’s no-one I’d rather lose to less than my brother but no-one I’d rather win with.”
Cambridge lead the overall tally in the men’s race (82-79), having triumphed in testing conditions last year, but there is little doubt that Oxford are favourites in 2017. President Michael DiSanto raced for the USA in Rio whilst the talents of Dutchman Olivier Siegalaar, an Olympic bronze medallist, are invaluable to any crew.
Beyond that though, Oxford will have a sub-plot far more innately human than silverware and muscle to call upon on race day. In the Cooks, they have the spirit of brotherhood – and there’s nought more powerful than that.