The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Chief Justice Earl Warren sagely remarked that when he read the newspaper, “I always turn to the sports page first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures." Reading THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown, one is reminded of Warren’s observation. This wonderful historical saga is the story of a great sports accomplishment by a group of dedicated athletes during the years when the rise of Nazi Germany was dooming the world to an unparalleled era of evil and world-wide conflict.
In recent years, sports history books have transformed themselves into more than a newspaper-like account of an important sporting event. If sports are a metaphor for life, then the history of sports serves as a reminder for how athletic competition has shaped our nation and our world in many more ways than just final scores and individual competitions. Many authors have recognized how sports have influenced a generation both on and off the athletic field. Authors such as Laura Hillenbrand, David Maraniss and Jonathan Eig all have focused on sports achievements in a greater context of their role in shaping history. Brown has written an extraordinary book accomplishing that same feat.
"Daniel James Brown has written an engaging, informative and inspirational book. For most readers, the sport of rowing is a mystery; great accomplishments against difficult odds are not. THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a story for everyone."
The sport of rowing conjures up visions of wealth and aristocracy. Most people would associate it with teams from Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. Very few would ever believe that a team of young college men from the state of Washington could be a powerhouse in the sport. But in the 1930s, young men from farms and small towns in Washington defeated the sophisticated teams from not only New England but also from the entire United States to earn the honor of representing America in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Three men are the focus of THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. Joe Rantz, a member of the Washington crew, was a true Horatio Alger story. As a young boy, he was abandoned by his family. He enrolled at the University of Washington, supporting himself and paying for college through odd jobs and summer employment. Somehow he found time to attempt to make the freshman rowing team, a competition where more than a hundred athletes sought to make the eight-man team. Al Ulbrickson, the coach of the Washington team, had chafed at the successes of other college teams who had rowed to national championships and Olympic medals. He constantly tinkered with the combination of rowers until he could combine his men into one cohesive synchronized unit.
The third actor in the story is Adolf Hitler. As Brown recounts the creation and tribulations of the Washington oarsmen, he intersperses a chapter to discuss the Berlin Olympics and the debate over whether nations should attend or boycott an Olympic game shrouded in political controversy. Here readers are reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT reminds us of a far different era in sports. These athletes were true amateurs, scraping by to earn tuition money while practicing and attending class full-time. They had no special workout regimens, and stayed in shape during the summer by seeking jobs that were physically taxing. Surprisingly, when they rowed in competition, tens of thousands of spectators would watch the races in person. President Franklin Roosevelt did just that, and Hitler attended the gold medal contest.
Daniel James Brown has written an engaging, informative and inspirational book. For most readers, the sport of rowing is a mystery; great accomplishments against difficult odds are not. THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a story for everyone.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on June 21, 2013