The Boys in the Boat

Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

[Amazon Link]

This book was recommended to me by my ex-boss. It also appeared on the conservative Daily Signal's article "Here Are 21 Books You Should Read in 2017". And finally, one of Mrs. Salad's co-workers loaned me her copy, unbidden.

OK, I can take a hint.

I was dubious about the subject. Of all sports, competitive rowing appears at the bottom of my interest list, down there with rivals cross country, field hockey, and water polo. But the author, Daniel James Brown, made me care about it, at least for the duration of reading this book. Specifically, the eight-oar nine-man crew from the University of Washington that beat all American rivals and went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. (The person you've heard most about in connection with that Olympics, Jesse Owens, barely gets mentioned here.)

Brown is convincing: there is really no other sport like this. To compete at a championship level requires an extraordinary amount of raw physical endurance coupled with meticulously precise oar placement and synchronization among the team members down to tiny fractions of a second. The boats themselves are marvels of nautical engineering, optimized down to a whisker, thanks to the absolute obsessive perfectionism of their master craftsman, George Yeoman Pocock.

Brown concentrates on just one of the team members, Joe Rantz; it's practically his biography. His tumultuous family life could well have sent him on the road to Nowheresville. Instead, he excelled at school, and got into the University of Washington. There, he just happened to sign up for crew, gaining team membership in a fiercely competitive field. And the rest is history, told with masterful skill and (even though we know the outcome) exciting suspense.

Brown also does a fine job placing Joe and the team into historical context. These are the days of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the building of the Grand Coulee Dam (a summer job for Joe), and, oh yeah: Nazis. As noted in the subtitle: the 1936 Olympics was held in fully-Nazified Berlin. (Ironically, the pageantry and ceremony around the modern Olympics seems to originally have been a Nazi innovation, kind of like the VW Beetle.) The world was suckered, however briefly, by all the glamour ginned up for the events, as recorded by the master cinematographer, Leni Riefenstahl. Brown notes a number of (perhaps) sleazy maneuvers that might have tipped the race to the Germans. Nothing worked, our boys prevailed.

A couple of things I noticed in passing:

  • The massive Olympic Stadium was, by Hitlerian decree, made by hand as much as possible, even when machines could have done the job quicker. I was unaware that Hitler was such a believer in Keynesianism.

  • A side character at the Olympics is the British rower Ran Laurie, the father of actor Hugh Laurie. Ran won a gold medal in a different rowing event. But he was so modest about it that Hugh's first knowledge of it was when he came across the medal in his father's sock drawer.

URLs du Jour

2017-02-13

Proverbs 29:11:

Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.

The US is running short on wisdom these days.

  • Kevin D. Williamson notes totalitarianism in the classified ads: "No Republicans Need Apply".

    One of the less understood criticisms of progressivism is that it is totalitarian, not in the sense that kale-eating Brooklynites want to build prison camps for political nonconformists (except for the ones who want to lock up global-warming skeptics) but in the sense that it assumes that there is no life outside of politics, that there is no separate sphere of private life, and that church, family, art, and much else properly resides within that sphere.

    KDW notes the dispiriting responses he received when he advocated declaring good proportions of your life as politics-free zones.

  • An article from print-Reason now available at their website: "Uganda's Bad Seeds" by Francisco Toro. Asking a simple question: why did the Green Revolution seem to skip Africa. First stop: visiting Uganda's ghost-town National Seed Testing Laboratory and its director, Divine Nakkede.

    Ensuring that farmers have access to good seed should be at the forefront of Uganda's fight against hunger, and a sample of each lot of agricultural seed produced in the country is supposed to be tested here. But the lab barely functions at all.

    Is insufficient funding the problem? Not quite. Expensive-looking machinery is all around us. Yet none of it, I slowly realize, is plugged into the wall.

    "Oh, yeah," an aid official tells me days later. "All the equipment at the Kawanda lab is fried."

    Six-word synopsis: Do-goodism meets corruption, and loses interest.

  • Ah, Meryl. "Meryl Streep Pledges to Stand Up to ‘Brownshirts’ in Tirade Against Trump"

    Meryl Streep, in a fiery speech criticizing President Trump on Saturday night, pledged to stand up against “brownshirts and bots” at a time when she and others are increasingly denouncing his administration’s policies and the president himself.

    The "brownshirt" thing is recycled Al Gore. The self-dramatization and delusion involved in holding oneself up as a brave opponent of modern Nazi scum should be clear to anyone not wedded to that narrative.

    She really is a good actress, though. All those roles where she played a sane, well-balanced individual—had me totally fooled.