I hate that it made me cry, because when I started Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” I was sceptical that 404 pages about a competitive sport – eight-men rowing – could be remotely interesting. And although the first quarter or first third, detailing the struggles of protagonist Joe Rantz in his early years as well as the programme at the University of Washington, was indeed unnecessarily slow and uninspiring, the narrative picked up pace as it became clear that the nine members from lower-middle-class families would row together, and climaxed beautifully with their gold-medal victory at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Given the knowledge of Rantz’s inclusion in the gold-medal-winning team, perhaps the intent was to emphasise his disadvantaged socio-economic background and his self-doubt, yet in the end his story spoke for itself.
Be that as it may, the descriptions of the harsh training regimens and environments, the heartbreaking defeats in university and national competition (or worse, being demoted to lesser boats or being left out of athletic contention), and ultimately and especially the final race in Berlin are poignant. Even the comparatively short epilogue about how the nine boys went about with their personal, family, and professional lives, coming together once in a while to row again and getting together as friends more frequently, was heartwarming. Interspersed with this focus on the victory-bound crew are vignettes of events in Germany – emphasising the infrastructural development and scale of the games, the involvement of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in producing some of the most effective propaganda films in history, and the seeds of discrimination against and eventual extermination of the Jewish people – though the extent to which the young rowers and their American contemporaries were cognisant of the atrocities was not adequately fleshed out.
Still, it was explained: “But there was a Germany the boys could not see, a Germany that was hidden from them, either by design or by time … Like the Hirschhahns, many of the Köpenickers the [American] boys passed on the street that afternoon were doomed: people who waited on the boys in shops, old women strolling around the castle grounds, mothers pushing baby carriages on cobblestone streets, children shrieking gleefully on playgrounds, old men walking dogs—loved and loving and destined for cattle cars and death”.
The final complementary component to the aforementioned – in a book meticulously informed by analysing logbooks and interviewing the crew members and their family members – was Brown’s details of the rowers-turned-coaches, their strategies and methods, their doubts and insecurities, and their rivalries across schools: Al Ubrickson, Ky Ebright, and George Pocock. Pocock – a leading British designer and builder of racing shells, which was used by most sport rowing programmes in America in the first half of the 20th century – was held in particular reverence, and it is said that him getting to understand Rantz better influenced Ubrickson’s decision to finally pick Rantz. Altogether, rowing is no longer presented as a competitive sport, but as meaningfully analogous to life and it’s many lessons.