I’ve always thought of Ivy League schools and the eighties Rob Lowe movie Oxford Blues when it comes to the sport of rowing. It turns out that rowing, or crew as it was often called, was one of the biggest sports in the U.S. in the early part of the twentieth century. The Boys In the Boat by Daniel James Brown tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 rowing team, perhaps one of the most celebrated and closely followed U.S rowing teams of all time. This rowing crew received a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but most of The Boys In the Boat’s pages are spent on the crew’s up and down journey just to get to the Olympics and on the sport of rowing in general.
Much of the story is devoted to Joe Rantz, one of the key oarsmen on the gold medal crew. Joe’s life is very emblematic of what people were going through in the 1930s. Joe’s stepmother ends up forcing his father to abandon Joe in favor of his younger half siblings when Joe is a teenager. This seems rather shocking to today’s reader, but Joe explains years later to his girlfriend that there simply wasn’t enough food for everyone and that, as the oldest, it only made sense that he was left on his own. Joe gets by in his high school and college years by stringing together odd jobs or finding back breaking work over the summer.
Since the ’36 Olympics were held in Germany, the book also gives a disturbing look at the Nazis’ propaganda machine. Berlin was turned into something of a movie set while the Olympic athletes and foreign press were there. Anti-Semitic signs were removed from stores and streets were spruced up to make the city look beautiful and spotless.
Even with all the hours of ESPN I’ve watched over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a rowing event or given much thought to the sport. However, Brown’s analysis of the boats and the different theories on what makes a successful rowing crew, combined with the stories of the rowers and coaches at Washington at the time, makes The Boys In the Boata fascinating read.