The Boat Race: one of the great broadcasting occasions

    At BBC Radio Sport there are certain events that when you are asked to cover them you're immediately aware of the history that goes with it. The Boat Race is undoubtedly one of them. That goes for not only the great occasion itself, but also BBC Radio's association with it.

    I am indebted to Battle of the Blues - an excellent history of the race by Christopher Dodd and John Marks - which tells me that our boat race radio coverage began in 1927 with two commentators, four engineers, an assistant, a driver and a ship's engineer on board a launch on the Thames. With 1000lbs of transmitting equipment, the broadcast was transmitted via an aerial slung between masts to four reception points along the river.

    Over the years it has been attempted in a variety of ways, but this year I will be safely on dry land. I'll be in a fixed position overlooking the finish line close to Chiswick Bridge. I'll be commentating on the majority of the race from the television pictures, until the boats come into view.

    Of all the footsteps I will follow as BBC Radio Boat Race commentator - and I am very well aware that some of the best broadcasters this country has produced have held the role - no one is more closely associated with it than John Snagge. He was the 'voice of the Boat Race' for 50 years up until 1980.

    Only last week on introducing myself to the Oxford number two rower Geordie McLeod, who is 21 years old, he immediately mentioned Snagge and the line for which he is probably best, and a little unfairly, remembered. It was delivered in 1949 when the commentary launch fell behind the race before Hammersmith Bridge, not catching up for two miles. Snagge, struggling to see the close finish, declared 'I don't know who's ahead; it's either Oxford or Cambridge'.

    Three years later, Snagge couldn't see the finish at all. The launch completely broke down in a blinding snowstorm about three miles in, meaning he was unable to broadcast on one of the closest race climaxes.

    So with the forecast predicted to as another chilly one this weekend, and much though I love the idea of commentating from the river in the thick of the action, I feel the decision-makers may have made a very shrewd call to position us where they have this time.

    While this is my debut, I will have some great and highly experienced company alongside in the commentary position in Olympic gold medal winning rowers James Cracknell, Martin Cross and Tom James. They are the experts and it's my intention to let them do the explaining and interpreting while I do the describing, and what a great canvass there will be to work with.

    I've not been at the Boat Race before, so have spent recent weeks watching DVDs and listening to the CDs of the radio commentaries. I cannot wait to experience and to try to convey the atmosphere.

    The two crews and coaches have been a pleasure to deal with, as I suspected they would be, and I am very grateful to the Oxford coach Sean Bowden who invited me to watch one of their training sessions on the Thames last wee. It gave me an invaluable insight into what goes on in the preparation.

    I have also consulted with some of my predecessors who have been very generous with tips and advice on how to approach it. This includes John Hunt who last year had to deal with one of the most dramatic and unpredictable races there's ever been.

    Just a fraction of all that excitement will do me this year, thank you very much.

    Full coverage of the Boat Race on 5 live Sunday 31 March from 4pm. Listen again to The Real Boat Race where James Cracknell, Tom James and Dan Topolski examine what it takes to win and discuss the ongoing popularity of the annual Oxford v Cambridge clash on the Thames.


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