Mutiny on the Isis

November 22, 1996

Oxford's crew in the 1987 boat race with Cambridge was riven by a mutiny so dramatic that Channel Four has turned it into a film. Chris Johnston reports. Mutinies have been synonymous with ships since sailors first took to the high seas. Like seafarers, rowers have also been known to throw down their oars. The most notorious British case was in 1987, when the sacking of an American member of the Oxford University squad for the annual boat race with Cambridge led to weeks of acrimony.

While the media chronicled the machinations as they took place, Oxford's coach, Dan Topolski, wrote a book. Published in 1989, True Blue gave a detailed insight into the rebellion. Now it has been made into a film, though whether the movie does for rowing what Chariots of Fire did for athletics remains to be seen.

Oxford and Cambridge have battled each other on the river since 1836, their teams whipped into a near-religious fervour to win the four-and-a-quarter mile race.

No one has been more passionate about winning than Dan Topolski, who coached Oxford to 12 victories in the 1970s and 1980s. But an unexpected loss to Cambridge in 1986 interrupted Oxford's supremacy. Topolski vowed to restore it. He was helped by Chris Clark, an American rower who persuaded four of his countrymen to come to Oxford to boost the university's prospects, and Donald Macdonald, the boat club president who ensured that the crew adhered to the punishing training schedule devised by the coach.

It wasn't long, however, before the arduous training regime began to take its toll. Clark took a stand against the twice daily workouts and convinced the entire team to walk out of one morning session.

Topolski relented and revised the training routine, but decided to pit Clark against Macdonald to test the former's fitness. When Clark won the race, the Americans delivered an ultimatum - they would not row if Macdonald was also in the boat.

Topolski responded by dropping Clark from the team, a decision the Americans agreed to if Macdonald also gave up his place. When this was refused, the remaining four US rowers withdrew. A divided, resentful team had just three weeks left before the big day.

That is more or less Topolski's recollection of the mutiny, which in the best Hollywood tradition, ends happily with Oxford's miraculous seven-length defeat of Cambridge. He says: "(The Americans) had an agenda - they decided they didn't want to do the kind of training that I thought was essential for the boat race. After a while, the whole thing exploded."

Not surprisingly, the coach's interpretation is disputed. Gavin Stewart, a member of the 1987 Oxford team, denies the Americans were responsible. Writing in The Times last week, he said they mutinied because Macdonald as president had lost the respect of the squad and the selection system had lost credibility.

"The spark was the decision to set aside the result of a trial between Donald and one of the Americans, giving them both seats and dropping another (British) rower. In truth, the Americans began by supporting British rowers, not the other way round," he comments.

Actor Josh Lucas, too, who plays an American rower in the film, hotly contests Topolski's assertion that the US team members did not want to train. "I don't think that's it at all. They had very different beliefs about the process of training and the way you approach the sport and I think there is definitely some validity to their point of view."

The American rowers also get a vote of support from Alison Gill, president of the Oxford Women's Boat Club in 1987 and author of The Yanks at Oxford. She says Topolski wrote True Blue to justify his own actions and, despite her respect for him as a coach, firmly believes the Americans were not there to disrupt the boat race.

"They were as passionate about the boat race as anybody else and anyone who knows them would recognise that the characters in the film and book aren't very true portrayals of the individuals," Gill explains.

BBC boat race commentator Barry Davies attributes the whole incident to a simple clash of personalities. "There have been many oarsmen of high quality who have come to the race and have blanched at what they're being asked to do. But they have to accept that while it has become an international event, it remains a very British event," he says.

While Davies feels the film lets the audience decide who was right and wrong, it remains reasonably faithful to Topolski's book. The coach, who returned to Oxford as an adviser after a six-year break in 1994, acted as technical consultant. He put the young actors - most of whom had been rowers - through four hours of training a day to prepare them for the shoot.

For Topolski (who pops up in a cameo role as the race umpire), it means once again opening up the wounds caused by what he describes as "a bruising affair". The 1987 rowers perhaps would rather have let the water pass under Hammersmith Bridge. That the five Americans refused to cooperate with the making of the film indicates all is far from being forgotten or forgiven.

True Blue opens nationally today.

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