Can sportsmanship be losing its hold in Britain? Two years ago, when Oxford University ruffled the waters by selecting a woman to be its coxswain in the annual Boat Race with the Cambridge rowing team, the race went on. But this year a little squall between the centuries-old universities over the definition of ''student'' nearly halted the colorful, less-than-a-half-hour contest.
First held in 1829, the Boat Race is the oldest event in what is now a long list of Oxford-Cambridge sporting rivalries. It has long attracted the attention of the British, and in recent years gathered a European television audience of 20 million viewers.
Yet early this month the Cambridge team announced it would not take part in the race if former Oxford team president Boris Rankov was one of Oxford's eight oarsmen. Oxford has won the last five Boat Races - with Rankov aboard. But according to Cambridge, the research fellow at Oxford's St. Hugh's College is no longer a student.
In its regulations, Cambridge gives a precise definition of in statu pupillari,m or student status - words that figure in a 1975 agreement between the schools on sports participation. Cambridge does not include fellows doing doctoral or postgraduate research. Oxford, on the other hand, has never in its seven centuries defined student status, apparently considering it obvious.
Despite the Cambridge threat, Oxford announced it had every intention of allowing Rankov to try for his sixth successive victory.
Most outside observers appeared to side with Oxford, openly questioning the motives of Cambridge, which has lost the race seven years in a row. One of those years - 1978 - the Cambridge boat sank. That ignominy was subsequently surpassed when the Oxford oarsmen posed for a Citroen station wagon advertisement wearing the traditional Cambridge light-blue blazer. The advertisement read: ''The last thing a rowing eight wants is an estate car that sinks.''
There was lingering suspicion that Cambridge was seeking to avoid further humiliation this year in a contest the Times of London had already dubbed ''a foregone conclusion.'' A race sponsor told the Times his company would ''take a very dim view'' if Cambridge followed through on its threat.
In the end, it did not. On March 12 the two schools announced the race would go on - with Rankov in the Oxford boat. Oxford agreed to meet with Cambridge in October to define in statu pupillarim for the two universities. At Oxford, the definition will be used only to clarify the status of participants in sporting clubs.
According to Steve Higgins, Oxford's coxswain - the individual who determines a boat's course and calls out the rhythm of the rowers' stroke - that definition will basically name as eligible for sporting competition anyone studying for a degree.
''That still would leave someone like Boris Rankov in the race, since he's reading for a PhD,'' said the Newcastle native, adding, ''I think maybe they (Cambridge) were trying their hand at getting rid of one of our members through gamesmanship.''
Relieved his first crack at one of the country's most prestigious races won't be spoiled by semantics, Higgins - who learned much of what he knows about rowing during a year of study at the Kent School in Connecticut - said that regardless of the ''Cantabs' '' final decision, Oxford would have shown up at Putney Bridge the first Sunday in April, if only to claim a forfeit.
He added that the University of London rowing team offered during the height of the controversy to take the place of Cambridge on the 41/4-mile of the Thames west of London between Putney and Mortlake.
But Higgins, invoking the Oxbridge prestige, said, ''We very much want to keep the continuity of the tradition, and racing the University of London would detract from that. It's the Oxford-Cambridge race.''