Women, men share billing in boat race on Thames

Feb. 16, 2012, 5:30 p.m. (ET)

LONDON (AP) Women will be given equal billing with men in the annual boat race between English universities Oxford and Cambridge, staging the women's race on the same day and the same course as the men's event starting in 2015.

Organizers said the races on the River Thames in London will give the women's race a higher profile and some much-needed funding.

The 4 1/2-mile men's race from Putney to Mortlake, which was first staged in 1829, is broadcast to 200 countries. The 1.2-mile women's race gets little media attention and has been held further down the Thames in nearby Henley for the past 35 years.

The decision to grant parity between the sexes in funding and coverage follows the path set by tennis, where equal prize money is offered at the Grand Slam tournaments.

“I'm thrilled that the women's boat race will be given equal parity with the men's,” said Annabel Vernon, a rower with Britain's national team. “This provides a massive opportunity to grow women's rowing in this country.”

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Matthew Pinsent said its a major advance for equality in the sport.

“We have had women's events at the Henley Royal Regatta for 10 years or so now, but this is an important step for what is one of the pre-eminent rowing races in the world and pre-eminent sporting fixtures in the world,” Pinsent said.

Female rowers have struggled in the shadows of the men for years, and were only allowed to race in Olympics starting in 1976.

“The women's boat club doesn't have nearly the same coaching or logistical infrastructure behind them - they cycle to training, they have to run their own cars to drive to a race, they have to buy their own kit and pay for their own entry fees,” Pinsent said. “This comes at a good time because there has been all this discussion about women in sport - it's a good moment to be welcoming them.”

Female crews will be asked to row a course nearly four times the length of their usual race, providing them with a huge challenge.

“We thought about - and quickly rejected - whether it should be in any way different from the men's race,” said Robert Gillespie, chairman of the Boat Race Company. “It's everybody's intention that it should be exactly the same.”

Helena Morrissey, the chief executive of women's race sponsor Newton Investment Management group, has been the driving force behind gaining equality in the event.

“It is exciting to have the opportunity to fund a program which is making a real difference to university and women's rowing, as well as women's sport more generally,” said Morrissey, who was a cox when she studied at Cambridge.

This year's men's race will be held on April 7.