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Harvard Intramural Athletics:

From Potato Races to House Football

By Mike Knobler

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Samborski ran the intramural program until 1961, when he became athletic director with Wilson stepping in as director of intramurals. With the merger of Radcliffe and Harvard during the early '70s five more Houses joined the intramural program.

Wilson added five women's sports to his schedule, but many women said they wanted to be able to compete in every House sport. This created few problems in sports like track and swimming, but some members of the Harvard community weren't ready to accept women's boxing. "It was finally decided that they could take part in the boxing." Wilson recalls. "When the bell sounded, the woman would lie down on the floor. It was a protest against the all-male sport." Wilson says. Eventually Wilson removed boxing from Straus Cup competition, citing concern for the health of the often poorly conditioned pugilists.

Now there are no sports women aren't allowed to compete in. "It a House has two teams in a certain sport, woman may choose to play on either the women's team or the regular House team," says a recent pamphlet on intramural athletics.

Harvard's merger with Radcliffe added another dimension to Straus Cup competition three Houses located apart from the rest of the undergraduate residences. For the Quad Houses, intramural competition afforded the opportunity to establish themselves.

"It's a was of proving the Quad isn't that bad of a place." Currier Athletic Secretary Bob Montelone '83 says. Last year Currier became the first of the Quad Houses to capture the Straus Cup, and though Monteleone says "it's not as exciting a cup as we thought it was," the senior organizer adds. "We intend to hold onto it as long as we can" Only two of the river Houses have never won a Cup Quincy and Adams. Kirkland's 17 Straus Cup victories is more than double those of runners-up Eliot and Winthrop.

While Currier worked on the Quad's image, Dunster and Mather were busy working on theirs. "May be now we'll get a little respect," fullback Mark Rosen said after his Mather-Dunster team clipped Quincy, 7-0, in the final of last year's tackle competition.

But perhaps more important than the football finale in the Stadium was Dunster's upset of Eliot in the A boat crew. The yearly crew competition is the biggest of all House sports, drawing over 50 boats and 500 participants. Eliot nipped Dunster by an inch in 1980, but Dunster had an crgometer--a rowing training machine--and the crew "worked on it all year." Athletic Secretary Steve O'Brien says.

Thus the banner draped over a bridge at last year's crew competition proclaimed. "You keep the Preppies; We'll take the Cup," as Currier raced toward the Quad's first-ever Straus Cup and Dunster outrowed Eliot in the men's A race.

Like anything else of its size, the University's intramural sports program has a sizable administrative infrastructure. Last year Wilson had 39 athletic secretaries coordinating the teams of the 13 Houses. The athletic secretaries act as Wilson's tentacles, reaching into each House gathering players and communicating schedules.

Wilson makes the schedule himself, pairing all participating teams in each of the '20 sports. He also must schedule the eight special events held annually.

Wilson estimates that the intramural program costs the athletic department' roughly a quarter of a million dollars a year. This year, Harvard earned quite a return on its investment, capturing 23 of 30 contests against Yale's College teams.

"If I were a coach. I'd be very happy with that as a season record." Wilson says. As one of two directors of intramural athletics, one of the University's most successful programs. Wilson can be pleased with his record too. Straus Trophy Winners 1935-1982 1982  Curner 1981  Kirkland 1980  Kirkland 1979  Winthrop 1978  Winthrop 1977  Winthrop 1976  Winthrop 1975  Lowell 1974  Lowell 1973  Eliot 1972  Eliot 1971  Winthrop 1970  Winthrop   Kirkland 1969  Eliot 1968  Winthrop 1967  Eliot 1966  Eliot 1965  Leverett 1964  Kirkland 1963  Dunster 1962  Kirkland 1960  Kirkland 1959  Kirkland 1958  Kirkland 1957  Kirkland 1956  Dunster 1955  Dunster 1954  Dunster 1953  Dunster 1952  Eliot 1951  Kirkland 1950  Kirkland 1949  Kirkland 1948  Eliot 1947  Leverett 1943  Leverett 1942  Kirkland 1941  Kirkland 1940  Kirkland 1939  Kirkland 1938  Lowell 1937  Kirkland 1936  Lowell 1935  Lowell

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