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
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.