Harvard Intramural Athletics:

From Potato Races to House Football

Ad Board rulings, feminist protests and House Masters' dicta--the Harvard intramural athletics program has survived all three while flourishing into one of the student body's largest extracurricular activities. This year two out of every three undergraduates will participate in at least one intramural sport.

But far from being just a playground for weekend leg-stretchers. House sports are filled with serious competitors. Although intramurals were conceived as good clean fun-the race for the yearly Straus Cup, named after Percy S. Straus '97 and awarded to the House with the most combined wins, breeds fierce battles and keen rivalries.

Crew has always been one of the most intense House sports, and about 20 years ago the Eliot House crew took its rowing so seriously that only a ruling by the House Masters and a bizarre boat trade with the intercollegiate crew program averted prolonged bad feelings.

Eliot dominated House crew races through the early and mid-1960s. In these days, the winners of the intramural crew events often travelled to the prestigious Henley Regatta, raced annually on England's Thames River. The 1960 Eliot rowers journeyed to Henley, where the Elephants--as they called themselves--saw the latest European shells and decided to buy one.

The trouble started when they brought it back. Unlike the other Houses, which used University-owned shells, Eliot had its own boat, 10 years newer than the newest of the shells available to the other Houses.


"People felt that gave them too much of an advantage," says Floyd S. Wilson, director of intramural athletics.

In 1961 Eliot entered two boats in the House crew finals, and the Elephants copped both first and second place. After taking the 1962 race, Eliot glided to a two-and-a-half length victory in the 1963 non-race. The sophisticated Italian rig they used was designed with both the number four and the number five man rowing starboard, thus reducing the torque in the middle of the boat. Germany's world-champion Ratzeburg crew used the same type of shell.

Faced with an equipment disparity that threatened the integrity of the House crew competition, the House Masters eventually voted to forbid Eliot from using its boat in intramural competition. For a few years, Eliot continued to practice in its new shell, switching to a University-owned model only for the annual House competition. But eventually they decided they would rather own a slower boat they could use than a faster boat they couldn't. So Eliot made a deal with crew Coach Harry Parker.

"They exchanged it for a boat that would be usable in House crew," Parker says. "We didn't use [their shell] very much and eventually sold it," he adds.

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As early as 1917, Harvard held organized intramural competition for undergraduates. And even earlier, on February 23, 1907. The Crimson announced plans for a Harvard track carnival. "The purpose of the carnival is to give all members of the University a chance to compete," the article said. The meet included interdormitory relay races and a shot-put event, as well as a potato race, a sack race, a pole-climbing competition and other less-than-standard track and field events. The Class of 1909 won the tug of war. The winter carnival became a popular annual event and was continued for many years.

By the 1920s, freshman dormitories Gore, Standish and Smith were dueling in more than a dozen sports. Soon after W.J. Bingham '16 took the reins as Harvard's first athletic director in 1926, the intramural program expanded to for mally include upperclassmen. But it was President Lowell's inauguration of the House system in the early '30s that gave intramural athletics their natural medium Students began competing for their Houses rather than for their classes. The new systems inflated the number of teams competing thus opening up intramurals for widespread participation.

Before the House system the class that triumphed in intramural competition tool, on its Yale counterpart When Harvard switched to the House system, the battles with the men of New Haven took on their present form organization by residence rather than class. In those days teams played for the Edward Harkness Cup, atrophy that has since been lost.

The importance of these contests soon accelerated to the point that when Crimson chances became threatened by academic probation, even the stodgy Administrative Board bowed to the Crimson-Eli rivalry. "Members of the Houses who are on probation may play against the Yale Colleges in their championship games." The Crimson announced in its lead story of January 19. 1934.

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