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"Friendships Forged in Strenuous Rivalry"
For 100 years, in a roughly biennial match, a combined Harvard and Yale track team has run, jumped, and thrown in competition with its British counterpart from Oxford and Cambridge. The H-Y versus O-C meet, it has been asserted on both sides of the Atlantic, is the oldest continuously held amateur international athletic contest in modern times--though just how old is a matter of interpretation.
The Brits celebrated the meet's "Centenary" with a splendid banquet at London's Guildhall in 1995. Because the first contest between the combined teams was in fact in 1899, the justification given was that Yale met Oxford in 1894. But that meant the English celebration was a year late. In a toast at the dinner honoring "the competitive friendship of four of the most distinguished Universities in the English-speaking world," dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy Knowles (an Oxford man) made note of this apparent inability to count, tracing it back to the very births of these institutions. Only Yale, he said, seemed to know exactly when it was founded.
Without question, the meet has a rich history. Luminaries among the fleet of foot, including Herb Elliot and Roger Bannister, Harold Abrahams and Lord Burghley (the latter two depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire) have run for Oxford and Cambridge. The Yanks have fielded athletes like William A. Schick Jr. '05, Aggrey Awori '65, Wendell Mottley, and Ned Gourdin '21 (see "Vita," November-December 1997, page 44), whose world-record triple jump of 25' 2 1/2" at the meet of 1921 still stands as the Harvard record. Many other records have been set or equaled at these meets. For Harvard athletes, furthermore, the event is a chance to set aside traditional rivalries and test the idea of running, if not quite for country, then at least for God and Yale.
Henry Wilder Foote, a competitor in the first meeting back in 1899, couldn't quite reconcile himself to the idea of Harvard-Yale team unity. "The Yale men were nice fellows, and we all got on splendidly together," he wrote his uncle Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, "but as far as winning was concerned, they might just as well have stayed home." To be perfectly clear, Foote continues: "The Yale failure to score was not through any ill luck, but simply because the men weren't good enough." Harvard and Yale lost that first meet, as one might guess. However, after 36 meets Harvard-Yale have won 24 to Cambridge-Oxford's 12.
Today this grand tradition is in some jeopardy of fading away. As an athletic event, it is storied and therefore exciting for students, but is less appealing to coaches, who have seen the meet change over time.
Harvard coach Frank Haggerty '68 remembers fondly his trip to England with the team when he was an undergraduate hurdler. But the social interactions that he enjoyed as a student just aren't there to the same degree now, he says. Part of the problem is timing. Harvard finishes its academic schedule in late May, Yale several weeks earlier. Oxford and Cambridge don't finish their exams (which in three years of study can be the only measure for determining whether a student gets a degree) until the end of June. So when the meet is in England, it falls in late June, when many of the British students have already departed for the season. And the Americans must defer summer jobs and other commitments for a month.
"Two-thirds of Harvard undergraduates receive financial aid," Haggerty points out. "It stands to reason, then, that two-thirds of the track team is also on financial aid. That means they have to make a contribution to the cost of their education. And that makes going to a summer meet like this very difficult." Haggerty says both he and Yale coaches Stephen Bartold and Mike Young would like to see the meet take place earlier, partly for such practical reasons, but also so the students can experience the English universities when they are in full session. Says Haggerty, "It would make handling the logistic difficulties of holding this meet a lot more palatable if we observed more opportunity to extract value from the social exchange."
This year, the Harvard-Yale team, after a two-week tour of preparatory meets in Scotland, will meet the British on June 24. Says Friends of Harvard Track chairman John Thorndike '49, "Our side should be unbeatable by then." Whoever wins on this hundredth anniversary, the meet once again will have been, in the words of Charles Francis Adams, an unfailing source of "friendships forged in strenuous rivalry."
~ Jonathan Shaw
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