LONDON - Women will be given equal billing with men in the annual boat race between English universities Oxford and Cambridge, giving one of the most traditional events on the British sporting calendar a radical 21st-century makeover.
Organizers said the races will be held on the same day and over the same stretch of the River Thames in London starting in 2015 in a break with tradition, giving the women's race a bigger profile and some much-needed funding.
The 7.2-kilometre men's race from Putney to Mortlake, which was first staged in 1829, is broadcast to 200 countries. The two-kilometre women's equivalent gets little media attention and has been held further along the Thames in nearby Henley for the past 35 years.
The decision to grant complete parity between the sexes in both 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 medallist Matthew Pinsent described the announcement as 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.
Women rowers have struggled in the shadows of the men for years, and were only allowed to race in Olympics from 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 now 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 the attempt to gain 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.