A new location, a female umpire and a number of COVID-safe measures; this year’s Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race comprised a few new additions. Here, Chris Price, event manager of The Boat Race, explains all…


Beginning a new job, leading the events team of a revered sporting event, steeped in tradition, is a daunting task. Every step, and change, you make is watched carefully. However, when that cherished event will be “different” because of COVID, it’s easier, right? When you’re forced to make changes, your actions cannot be compared to what’s gone before. Therefore, is the pressure to deliver any less?

Chris Price, event manager of The Boat Race, is a new face on the block at Boat Race HQ. He started his new role in November, knowing when he accepted the job that The Boat Race would have a different look and feel. The Boat Race would not take place along the banks of the Thames and there would be no buzz from thousands of spectators.

“I had a blank piece of paper and I had two weeks to write an event management plan,” Price explained. “When I started the job, I knew that The Boat Race would have a new location. There was an agreement in principle with Cambridgeshire Council about using a stretch of river. But that was it.”

Price picked up the briefing notes and cracked on, quickly writing an event plan to satisfy the safety advisory group and Public Health.

“Everything was new,” Price continued. “There were certain traditions that we had to try and keep, key boxes needed ticking.”

Reassuringly, Price was not being judged. It was widely accepted that this year’s men’s and women’s races between Oxford and Cambridge Universities were going to be vastly different. Everyone was just extremely happy that the event was going ahead. The rowers that had trained for two years could take to the water on the River Great Ouse in Ely.

Boat Race

Stay safe – stay away

Initial meetings centred around where The Boat Race and the BBC could site their respective infrastructure. Then, as lockdown restrictions got worse, the organising team had to think carefully.

Price added: “Athletes were training in their bedrooms. We had to get them on the water.”

With support from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, this was achieved – the event was hosted under “elite status”. Price and his team had to follow the Government’s Elite Sport Guidance for Domestic Competition. No spectators were allowed. This was tricky, as it meant that a six-kilometre stretch of the river had to be closed to the public. What followed was a large comms campaign, telling the public to “Stay safe. Stay away”.

“We had no legislation to stop people from coming so Cambridgeshire Council issued a directional notice to close the area down under the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations. It gave us the legal powers to remove people but hardly anyone turned up.”

The comms had worked, which was great, as potential crowds/spectators was one of the biggest challenges. Another big challenge was the ever-changing scenario of COVID.

Plan and adapt

According to Rob Walley, MD of Controlled Events, the event’s COVID-secure arrangements, established with JP Event Safety, meant that physical co-location of all functions and agencies was impossible. Traditional event liaison team meetings throughout the day were not possible either so conference calls and information sharing via a log – recorded by Controlled Events – became all the more important.

Controlled Events provided The Boat Race with event control room management and event wide radio, alongside 2CL. This was paramount on the day, as the area was monitored closely. Smooth running was essential. Everyone had waited so long for this event to happen that it had to go without a hitch.

“The events footprint was vastly different,” Price explained. “Temporary infrastructure was installed for Oxford, next to Cambridge’s Boat House. The boat crews and coaches were contained separately. They had their own bubble.

“We restricted numbers, umpires had dual roles and we had limited media.”

Everyone on site was accredited daily. Everyone signing in on site had to declare they were symptom free, fill out an opt in form and sign up to the site rules. Athletes were tested for COVID, but contractors and crew were not.

“The events industry is always going to be adapting,” Price said. “The quicker you can adapt, the quicker you can put a plan together but the event plan that we just used is no good to anyone else.

“I am now working on plans for next year’s race but there’s uncertainty around location. We’re looking at alternative routes. For now, given the limited number of events that are happening, I am just proud that we were able to deliver the event, and that no one turned up.”

Images: Benedict Tufnell and Lucinda Douse