In venerable Oxford-Cambridge boat race, Americans are to the fore

April 03, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Britain's two most venerable and prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge, will run their annual boat race tomorrow in the gray and murky Thames, a sculling rivalry that has gone on for 138 years.

The only safe prediction is that the Americans will win.

Both sculling teams are captained by Americans, Joseph G. Michels of Cheverly, Md., for Oxford and Maximillian C. G. Justicz, English-born but raised in Atlanta, for Cambridge.

In addition to their captains, each team has two other Americans: Donald N. Fawcett of Tryingham, Mass., and Daniel R. M. Justicz, the captain's brother, for Cambridge, and Hamish P. M. Hume of Washington, D.C., and Kris W. Kobach of Topeka, Kan., for Oxford.

That's six out of the total of 18 crew members in both boats.

Sculling is big sport in Britain. Thousands will line the riverside embankments as the two teams pump the serpentine, 4.2-mile route from Putney in southwest London to the finish line just short of the Chiswick Bridge.

The bookmakers favor Oxford, which has won 15 of the last 16 races.

Mr. Michels, Oxford's captain, is a graduate student in physics. He is a genial 27-year-old -- tall and quiet, even slightly deferential. He has the athlete's lack of body tension, almost a torpor. He is uncertain what he will be doing when he gets his doctorate.

"It'll be research or teaching," he said. "Maybe I'll wind up at Johns Hopkins."

Mr. Michels, whose parents live in Cheverly, went to St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C., then to La Salle University in Philadelphia, where he took up rowing.

"I consider Philadelphia my home," he says. "When I was at La Salle, I was always at the Vesper Boat Club [on the Schuylkill River]. I used to live at the Vesper."

The Vesper Boat Club and Philadelphia have many associations with British rowing, not all of them pleasant. In 1905, the club was banned from racing at Henley, the site of Britain's annual Royal Regatta, and the place where the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry started in 1854.

According to Pamela Cole, a spokeswoman for the regatta, who looked it up, Vesper "was dropped because they were sponsored, some of their rowers were paid money, and the cost of sending them to England had been met by public vTC subscriptions." In the eyes of the regatta, they were no longer amateurs.

In 1920, John B. Kelly of Philadelphia, a Vesper rower, tried to enter the Diamond Challenge Scull, the single-man race at Henley. He was barred under the Vesper ban and, it has been suggested, because he had been apprenticed as a bricklayer.

That's the way they understood it in Philadelphia back in 1920, and still do. "He couldn't compete because he was a workingman," said Mr. Michels.

John Kelly's revenge for the snub, if that's what it was, was doubly sweet. He went to the Olympics, which accepted his amateur status, and won a gold medal by beating the man who won the Diamond Challenge Scull race. Then he raised a son, John B. Kelly Jr., who entered and won the Diamond Challenge Scull in 1947.

In 1981, his other child, Grace Kelly, former movie star and princess of the small principality of Monaco, was invited to the regatta to give the cup to the winner. She could not let the event pass without a reference to her family's bittersweet memories of Henley.

Things have changed much in British rowing over the years. Not only is it more egalitarian, and not only do foreigners row for the premier British teams, but many of the races are commercially sponsored.

Tomorrow, one sure winner will be the gin company that is footing the bill for the race.

Its trademark and logo will be plastered everywhere within camera range along the racecourse, exposing it to the 10 million people who are expected to watch it on television here, and over 100 million worldwide.

At the end of the race the U.S. Ambassador, Raymond G. H. Seitz, has been invited to bestow the gin company's trophy on the winner "because of the great American participation this year."

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